Design

Fireworks noise can damage your ears

Photo credit: ViTalko from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report from KCBD in Texas discusses the dangers of fireworks noise for auditory health. The audiologist interviewed, Leigh Ann Reel, Ph.D., is especially concerned about impulsive noise, as from an explosion. One exposure at close range can cause permanent hearing loss, tinnitus, or hyperacusis.

Fire departments and public health authorities generally recommend leaving fireworks displays to the professionals, but in many states and localities personal use of fireworks is legal and enforcement of fireworks bans is spotty.

I would prefer quiet fireworks, as have been mandated in many parts of Europe, both for people and for their pets.

Please stay safe.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Death of the open plan office?

Photo credit: Peter Bennets licensed under CC BY 3.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

If this pair of NPR articles are correct, the pandemic will cause the death of the open plan office. Now there’s reason to celebrate. Goodbye noisy co0workers and endless distraction!

What the articles suggest is the shift to working from home is going to be permanent for many former office workers. And it appears they are happy about it despite the obvious problems, like kids, pets, and so on.

It’s no secret that office workers have watched with horror as their workspace has steadily diminished over several decades so that the most fashionable, cutting edge offices, like those sported by Google and Facebook, now feature no closed offices at all–except for the C-Suite of course. Instead, there are row upon row of tables, often on casters, on concrete floors, just like factories. Even offices with cubicles have seen those cubicles diminish in size and the barriers between them evaporate.

So is working from home a perfect solution for everyone? Well, no. But if offices can’t bring back more than 50% of their staffs at any one time, that means that many
office workers can ditch the commute at least half of the time and work in their pjs (from the waist down, at most, if you do Zoom calls).

Get used to it. The future of office work has come home!

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Experts envision post-COVID cities without noise and pollution

Car-free street in New York City during lockdown | Photo credit: Jim Griffin has dedicated this photograph to the public domain

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Menios Constantinou, Architecture & Deisgn, writes about how the COVID pandemic and lockdown is giving us the opportunity to envision our cities without the twin scourges of noise and pollution. Constantinou interviewed Professor Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, a professorial fellow at the MacKillop Institute for Health Research and a leading environmental epidemiologist, who talked about how he noticed at the beginning of the lockdown that he could hear birds singing as the traffic noise had greatly diminished. Nieuwenhuijsen’s observation led him to reimagine what cities could be.

And he’s not the only one. Nieuwenhuijsen told Constantinou that “[w]hat you see in places like Milan is the policymakers taking advantage of the current situation, and using it as an opportunity to rethink how they plan their cities.” This is also happening elsewhere, with more than a dozen European nations backing a green post-pandemic recovery plan. The money can only be spent once, Nieuwenhuijsen adds, so “we might as well do it in the way that will save more lives in the long term, and create a more just, sustainable and liveable society.”

I’ve been wondering if this flashback we’ve been living in—flashback to what life may have been like before the industrial revolution—would produce any permanent changes when it’s over.

It’s a tough question to answer as we know so little about what happened after previous pandemics. For instance, the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918 was a social cost of the WWI mobilization–hat flu began with animal to human transmission in Kansas, spread east to Army recruitment centers, travelled abroad, exploded there and then returned to the U.S. in the tragically deadly second wave. And, of course the great plagues in Europe during the 14th to 16th centuries continued episodically for over 200 years because they didn’t have a theory of viral or bacterial disease or know they’re transmitted. That one, of course, then travelled across the Atlantic to North and South America with the Conquistadors and their soldiers and crews—ultimately destroying millions of lives and ending lost-established, indigenous civilizations.

This time we have the opportunity to learn from it. And there are encouraging signs that urban planners are embracing the idea that quieter, cleaner cities are possible, and what’s more, they’re highly desirable. Will that spur an acceleration in interest among city planners and others in doing more to regain that which has been lost to pollution and noise?

We can only hope that what Professor Nieuwenhuijsen comments will be heeded everywhere!

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Buildings are noisy because architects don’t study sound

Photo credit: Graeme Maclean licensed under CC BY 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Most of us assume when we walk into a very noisy building that it must be ok, because if it weren’t, wouldn’t somebody have thought of a solution to the problem? But it’s a simple fact that planners and architects spend little to no time thinking about noise and sound, unless they are designing a theater or performance space.

Architects don’t inhabit the spaces they design. And they can’t show clients pictures of what their projects will sound like, unless they spend some money on modeling sound conditions.

This fairly sparse article at least touches on this vast area of ignorance about sound among architects, planners, and grad school faculty.

The foundations of acoustical science are well over a century old and well respected, but they are embedded in physics, not art and architecture. Not every architect and planner is ignorant of the subject—there are some exceptions–but the plain fact is architects do not know how to design for good sound quality. They rely on specialists from physics, and those people cost money. As a result, noise is typically not recognized as a problem until after a building has been built and the planners, architects, designers, and contractors have all gone home and deposited their checks.  And then it is often too late.

So next time you’re in a nicely designed space that you find is too noisy, remember that it’s very likely no one thought about the soundscape until it was too late and hoped you wouldn’t notice. Be sure to tell them that you do.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The sound of a COVID-19 cough

Photo credit: GabboT licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Throughout history, physicians have used sounds to diagnose respiratory illness. Sometimes one doesn’t need a stethoscope. The barking cough of croup in a child, the ominous upper airway wheeze of epiglottitis, and the wheezes of someone with an asthma attack, can all be heard when walking into the patient’s room.

The stethoscope helps, though. Rene Laennec invented the stethoscope in 1816.

We listen for the wheeze of asthma, the bronchial breath sounds of pneumonia, the rales of congestive heart failure, or the diminished or absent breath sounds of pneumothorax.

I once even diagnosed lung cancer in a smoker when I heard the telltale “wheeze that doesn’t clear with a cough.” I had read about this in medical school, but had never heard it in practice until I did. I ordered a chest x-ray which confirmed the diagnosis and the patient was able to have curative surgery.

COVID-19 patients often have a dry cough. Until the U.S. develops sufficient testing capability to test every person needing a COVID test, perhaps sounds can help.

This NPR report discusses possibly using artificial intelligence to analyze the sounds of COVID coughs to develop a diagnostic test. This would also be useful in resource-poor environments around the world. I hope the efforts described are successful.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Popular Mechanics reviews quiet, electric mowers

Photo credit: MonikaP from Pixabay

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Heres’ some good news: Popular Mechanics magazine has published a review of quieter, battery-powered electric lawn mowers. The bad news is they didn’t measure their noise levels! How bizarre is that? Consumer Reports also tests lawn maintenance equipment, so you may want to check there too.

In the EU, manufacturers are required to test the noise levels of over 50 classes of products, including household appliances and construction equipment. So if you’re concerned about noise levels, look for European-made equipment because the manufacturers can tell you exactly how loud their products are–they’re required to do this following standardized procedures.

The difference in the american and European approaces are discussed in the 2011 report from the National Academy of Engineering, “Technology for a Quieter America. TLDR: The Europeans have a big head start on us.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Electric air taxis may be exciting, but are they silent?

Photo credit: BM für Verkehr und digitale Infrastruktur licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

You have to watch this very cool video on electric air taxis. It all seems very exciting, but why don’t we hear them in action?

As you may remember, I voiced my concern about two new sources of sky borne noise that were spurred by the 2018 signing of the FAA Re-Authorization Act: (1) the imminent appearance of drone-delivery services in our neighborhoods, and (2) the growing interest in all-electric vertical take off & landing air taxis. Some thought this was pure hype from Uber—an attempt to pump up their stock before their IPO awhile back. But there’s actually quite a bit of investment in technology for small, short-hop, eVTOL aircraft.

The idea’s been out there for a lifetime that small aircraft could be wheeled out of our garages, leap straight up into the air and whisk us off to…someplace besides a crowded freeway. Will regulators shut it down? Unlikely. In fact, they’re actively encouraging development of eVTOL aircraft, particularly in Europe, where, as you likely know, they pay much more attention to community noise than we do here in the U.S.

But what about the noise—not to mention the air accidents—from the burgeoning, uncontrolled growth of drone delivery services and air taxis? Yes, they’re electrically propelled, but they’re not silent.

Who cares about this? It’s time for the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus to re-convene and get back to work. They got the FAA Re-Authorization done (that took six years), but now it’s creating new problems that nobody seems to be thinking about.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

EU’s robust noise-labelling requirements

Image credit: Flappiefh has dedicated this work into the public domain

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Our own Dr. Fink wrote about this fascinating article in the New York Times concerning new labelling of junk foods in one of the world’s most overweight nations, Chile. The use of the classic octagonal STOP sign as the shape of these labels is absolutely brilliant as it telegraphs nonverbally, the powerful message to STOP and THINK. Using the same shape for labels on extremely noisy products would surely have an effect on peoples’ awareness that noise is now recognized as a public health problem.

I should add that abundant research was done in the European Union before the recent launch of a noise-awareness label on many classes of products–from air-conditioners to blenders to chainsaws and industrial equipment. You can see the label pictured above and note that it is very different from the Chilean approach.

As you can see, a noise-rating, stated in decibels (dB) has simply been added to the EU-wide energy label. Piggybacking a noise-rating onto the standardized energy label is an excellent approach to getting the message out about noise pollution in energy-conscious EU countries.

You surely also notice that the EU label is strictly informational, it simply reports the decibel emission level of the product—so it’s not a warning at all. Proponents argue that the EU approach is “market-based” and isn’t “judgmental” at all, i.e., there’s nothing on the label that tells you what noise level may be harmful to your health.

But at least there are now two very different, well-researched examples of how labelling might work on noisy products, the EU’s information-only approach, versus the Chilean warning label approach. So now some researcher can take a look at the big question: do they work?

Some of us remember the excitement that surrounded the semiotically-inspired “universal signage movement” of the 1960-70s–from that movement sprang the ubiquitous signage used all over the world for “bathroom” and “information” and “currency exchange,” etc., and later spurred the development of all of the icons that now litter our mobile devices. If you remember all that, you will certainly recognize that the shape and color of a warning label, like the red octagonal STOP sign or the standard try-color traffic light (red/yellow/green) took years to develop, standardize, and implement worldwide.

Lately, the whole universal sign language movement has gained new life in the UX-User Interface world, where symbols have emerged for everything, including emotional states, i.e., EMOJIs!

In any event, it’s my hope that someone will study the effectiveness of noise warning labels, so that the global noise problem can be addressed in an understandable and effective manner!

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Quieter electric planes are already in the air

Photo credit: Matti Blume licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Some readers think electrically-powered aircraft are a wild-eyed futuristic idea—not so! Quieter all-electric, battery-powered aircraft are already flying. Most of these are one- or two-passenger planes but they demonstrate the viability and economic attractiveness of battery-powered electric planes. This video shows you ten models you can buy and fly now:

Perhaps the most exciting one in this video is the 11-seat (9 passengers plus two pilots) Israeli-designed “Eviation Alice” which is intended for commercial, commuter flights. The first customer for the Eviation Alice, CapeAir, based in the eastern U.S., signed up in mid-2019 and has placed an order for delivery in 2022.

The big player in this transformation to electric aircraft is not an American company. It’s Germany’s Siemens. So far Boeing and it’s engine-maker GE are not doing anything in this space, just sitting on the sidelines and waiting for somebody else to go first. But with Boeing’s GE-powered 737MAX completely and indefinitely grounded worldwide, perhaps that partnership isn’t in a mood for innovation right now.

Electric propulsion of larger airliners—the kind of planes most of us ride like Airbus A320s, etc.—won’t arrive until battery technology takes the next big leap. But Tesla’s Elon Musk is a major player in that effort, so keep an eye on him in this sector, too. He’s not just a car and rocket guy, he’s also keenly interested in electric aircraft.

Airports are certainly not quiet now, and the FAA seems to be working hard to stall improvement. But no matter what the FAA and regional airport authorities do, the electric revolution in aircraft is showing that quieter, more fuel-efficient flight is closer than we might have thought!

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

6 in 10 workers complain about workplace distraction

Photo credit: Cadeau Maestro from Pexels

And what are the biggest culprits?  No surprise: noisy talkers, loud recreation, and open concept offices.

The article linked above references a study that was conducted in Canada, but there’s no reason to suspect that the experience of U.S. workers is any different.  In the end, any savings in real estate expense must be outweighed by lost productivity due to noisy, distracting environments.

But is the productivity loss measureable? If yes, is it significant?

Yes and yes. According to a survey by coworking company iQ Offices, fighting distractions leads to “up to two hours per day of lost productivity.”

Two hours per day per employee.  It adds up.