Everyday noise

How to motivate millennials to protect their hearing at work

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The Quiet Coalition doesn’t spend much time worrying about occupational noise because our focus is on protecting the general public from noise. Workers’ ears are protected by regulations drafted and enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and similar state agencies. Moreover, workers generally have health care for occupational injuries, and are compensated for work-related permanent damage (including hearing loss) by state-administered workers compensation systems. If occupational hearing loss is established, hearing aids may be provided for those with occupational hearing loss.

From time to time we will agree with the many observers who think that the occupational noise exposure limit–90 A-weighted decibels for 40 hours a week, 240 days a year, for 40 years, causing excess hearing loss in 25% of exposed workers–is set too high, but at least workers have that meager protection. There are no such protections for the public, and no compensation for hearing loss, either.

That said, we’re making an exception to share with you this well-written article in Occupational Health & Safety Magazine. It’s focused on preventing hearing loss in younger workers, but it provides good information for everyone who is concerned about their hearing.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and 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.

Noise is the excreta of technological civilization

Photo credit: G.M. Briggs

Jonathan Power, author and former foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune, writes about favorite sounds and the scourge that is noise. Power’s favorite sounds “are the quiet sounds of the English Lake District,” which he contrasts with the sound of noise: cars and trucks, airplanes and builders, canned music in cafes, a symphony playing an atonal concerto.  “Noise,” he concludes, “is the excreta of technological civilization,” adding that “[o]ne study predicts that exposure to loud music will cause 50 million Americans to suffer heavy hearing loss by 2050.”

Power looks at the health effects of noise–not just damage to hearing, but also “high blood pressure, disturbed sleep and even heart disease.” He writes about the fight against another runway at Heathrow and the political fight that was lost–or is it?–by the tens of thousands living near the airport, while noting that smaller battles can be won. And while noise “is never likely to compete with other political issues such as unemployment and nuclear weapons in North Korea,” Power notes that politicians are sensitive to political pressure. Moreover, he lists measures that have been tried and tested in various places which can be borrowed wherever we live, like Switzerland’s ban on the driving of heavy trucks at night and on Sundays, or the U.S.’s and UK’s modification of noise regulations in 1976 which required older aircraft to comply with noise limits set for new aircraft.

Power calls for us to put these and other examples on social media and, more importantly, to “demand MORE, and distribute your demands far and wide.”  In the end, if we want to enjoy our favorite sounds, we have to fight for the right to hear them.

The NIH recognizes noisy restaurants are a problem

Photo credit: Alan Light licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

With this web content posted last year as part of its Dangerous Decibels program, the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), part of the National Institutes of Health, finally recognizes that restaurant noise is a problem. Unfortunately, NIDCD persists in stating that

Research shows that long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels can cause noise-induced hearing loss. Signs of having been exposed to too much noise include not hearing clearly or having ringing in your ears after leaving a noisy environment.

We disagree. By the time one can’t hear clearly or experiences tinnitus, it’s too late–permanent hearing damage has occurred. The damage occurs because 85 decibels is not a safe noise level for the public. As I wrote in the American Journal of Public Health, the only evidence-based safe noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss is 70 decibels time-weighted average for a 24-hour period. The 85 decibel standard NIDCD relies on is an occupational noise exposure level, and that standard fails to prevent hearing loss in all exposed workers. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health agrees, and the auditory injury threshold, discussed by Flamme, et al., is only 75-78 A-weighted decibels (dBA).

A simple rule to protect hearing is “if it sounds too loud, it IS too loud.” If you can’t carry on a normal conversation without straining to speak or to be heard, the ambient noise level is above 75 dBA (see figure D-1, “Information on Levels of Environmental Noise Requisite to Protect Public Health and Welfare with an Adequate Margin of Safety”) and auditory damage is occurring. And, unfortunately, many if not most restaurants are noisier than 75 dBA.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and 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.

Au revoir to noisy vacuum cleaners?

Photo credit: Robert Scarth licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The answer is yes! Well, at least in the European Union (EU), that is. Some folks like to mock the EU and its many regulations as “the Nanny State,” but we think that regulations protecting the public from harm–be it financial harm, damage to the environment, or harm to their health–are a good thing. So new EU regulations governing vacuum cleaner noise and power consumption are good for those living in Europe and likely will have an impact on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, too.

Noise is a ubiquitous health hazard, causing hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis. Research shows that most Americans get too much noise every day and certainly appliance noise contributes to the total daily noise dose. Excessive noise exposure accounts for the recently reported high rate of noise-induced hearing loss in American adults. Quieter vacuum cleaners will help reduce the total daily noise dose.

We know that the Trump administration and Republican politicians believe in the free market, not in regulation. They like to use the pejorative phrase “job-killing regulations.” But it’s clear from past experience that regulations that benefit consumers and the environment will lead to increased sales, and increased jobs, in the United States and worldwide.

American companies ignore international regulations and international standards at their own peril. In the appliance market, this already happened with dishwashers, where over the last several years Bosch and other European manufacturers have a foothold in the American market which they gained by manufacturing and marketing quieter dishwashers. It’s happening with airplanes, where Airbus has stolen market share from once-predominant Boeing by producing quieter and more efficient planes. It happened with air conditioners, where Mitsubishi has taken the technological leadership away from Carrier, the inventor of air conditioning equipment.

We don’t think most people will rush out to buy quieter vacuum cleaners to replace their machine if it is working well, but when it comes time to replace it anyone wanting quiet–and particularly those with pets, autistic children, or elderly people at home–will choose a quieter and more energy-efficient European vacuum cleaner over its American-branded competitors.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and 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.

Noisy restaurants redux

Photo credit: James Palinsad licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Both my parents served in the U.S. Army in World War II, met while in the service, and married shortly after the war ended. I was born a few years later. So I am a “baby boomer,” but I’m not a regular reader of BOOMER Magazine. That said, this article in BOOMER Magazine about noisy restaurants clearly defines the issue, even as it fails to deliver the right solutions.

The article talks about the heartbeat of a restaurant, i.e., the unique ambience. Unfortunately, in many restaurants that heartbeat is far too loud. The problem is that many baby boomers have significant (25-40 decibel) hearing loss, which makes it impossible to understand speech in a noisy environment. And in many cases, noise levels in restaurants and bars are loud enough to cause further hearing loss, discomfort, and even pain.

Many of us boomers are in our mid to late 60s. We may think of ourselves as “forever young,” but the reality is that (with graying and/or thinning hair, thickening middles, and bifocals) we are not the “demographic” that marketers and retailers want, even if many of us have a lot more money and a lot more time in which to spend it that younger people do. For many baby boomers our mortgages are paid off, the kids are done with college, and we’ve funded our retirements. And members of this demographic are looking for restaurants in which we can enjoy a meal AND a conversation with family and friends. But as long as the restaurants are busy–and they sure were in west Los Angeles last night–the restaurateurs and barkeeps have no reason to make things quieter.

This December I will be speaking on the disability rights aspects of ambient noise at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in New Orleans. It’s my position that the answer to excessive restaurant noise isn’t eating earlier, or choosing a quieter restaurant (a near impossibility in many cities, including mine), or grinning and bearing it, as BOOMER Magazine suggests, it’s making restaurants quieter. In many cases, this doesn’t cost anything: just turn down–or turn off–the music!

I’m a doctor with tinnitus and hyperacusis, not a lawyer. But it seems to me that those of us with partial hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) definition of having a disability. The ADA defines an individual with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” If I’m correct, ADA regulations should require “places of public accommodation”–including restaurants and bars–to be quiet enough to allow those with auditory disorders to converse while enjoying a meal or a drink. That is, people with partial hearing loss, tinnitus, and/or hyperacusis should be protected under the ADA.

For those concerned that indoor quiet laws will hurt business, I turn to the example of no-smoking laws that were imposed on restaurants and bars. Restaurant proprietors and especially bar owners foresaw calamity, but a multitude of studies showed no impact on revenues. My guess is that if some smokers chose not to go to restaurants or bars, they were replaced by those who didn’t want a side order of secondhand smoke with their steak frites. Or the smokers learned to smoke before or after dinner, or to step outside if they wanted to smoke. And that’s what I predict will happen when indoor quiet laws are passed: diners will still go to restaurants, maybe even more of them.

Until reason prevails and restaurants are required to meet reasonable decibel limits, we must ask restaurant owners and managers to turn down the volume.  And if they want our business, they will do it. But what if our requests fall on deaf ears? The next step may be pursuing legal remedies under the ADA to require restaurants to provide a soundscape that protects everyone’s ears.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and 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.

Want to live in the city? Here’s a calculus you should consider:

, a licensed real estate agent writing for The Washington Post, looks at the “noise-v.-walkability trade-off.” Kaminsky states that while “[w]aking up in a city that never sleeps is an exhilarating and romantic notion,” the reality–screaming sirens and honking horns at night, deafening construction noises all day–leaves something to be desired. But despite all the noise that comes with the urban experience, living in a city has never been more popular. Why? Walkability is the main reason that millennials give for preferring city living, but older Americans who are downsizing are also leaving the suburbs for city centers.

What can you do if you want to live in the big city? Kaminstky offers this word of advice: “[d]on’t think that you are going to move to the city and then win the fight against noise.” So what does she suggest? Her number one suggestion is this: look up. Whether buying or renting, higher floors are quieter. To see all of Kaminsky’s suggestions, click the link above.

UK shops to offer “quiet support” to autistic customers

in a campaign titled the “Autism Hour.”  The Independent reports that “[t]he Autism Hour has been organized by the National Autistic Society to help draw attention to the difficulties that people with autism can face in noisy environments.” Autistic children often have difficulty dealing with loud spaces and when confronted with a noisy environment, they may go into a “meltdown.” To make shopping easier for them and their parents, beginning in the first week of October, “businesses will turn down music, reduce tannoy (loudspeaker) announcements and dim lights to help create a calming and less daunting environment.” Many major retailers have already signed up to participate, including Toys R Us.

Kudos to the National Autistic Society for getting major retailers on board this initiative. UK residents have been working on getting retailers to agree to trial a “quiet hour” program for some years, and some retailers agreed. With the launch of the Autism Hour campaign, one hopes that quiet accommodation is now a regular feature of retail stores in the UK. Meanwhile, Toys R Us has taken the lead in offering accommodation for autistic customers in the U.S., by simply modeling their U.S. program after their UK experience. Thanks to the persistence from those who need or prefer a quieter shopping experience, the U.S. is poised to catch up with the UK and offer accommodation for those who cannot tolerate noisy environments.

How City Noise is Slowly Killing You

Photo credit: Mdanser (public domain)

Andrea Bartz, Harper’s Bazaar, dispenses with the niceties and cuts to the quick with her recent article on the consequences of urban noise. In her well-linked piece, she writes about “the number-two threat to public health, after air pollution,” and it’s effect on our health. She begins by focusing on the known universe of horribles that are triggered by the relentless assault of noise in cities, namely “[c]ancer, heart disease, obesity and myriad other conditions” that are exacerbated by stress, adding that the “constant gush of stress hormones actually restructures the brain, contributing to tumor development, heart disease, respiratory disorders, and more.”

And the problems don’t end with health consequences. Bartz speaks to Arline Bronzaft, PhD, an environmental psychologist who has been a noise activist for over four decades. Bronzaft states that “[e]ven if you don’t have health problems yet, you’ll have diminished quality of life [from noise pollution].” A diminished quality of life includes bouts of interrupted sleep, interference with cognitive tasks, and elevated stress hormones. As Bronzaft notes, “[b]y dealing with the sounds of the city, you’re using up energy, which is costly to your body.”

Bartz says that our parents didn’t have it so bad, and turns to Bart Kosko, Ph.D., a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California and the author of Noise, who asserts that “[c]ell phones are largely to blame.” Why? Because someone talking on the cell phone “imposes a type of sonic nuisance on those nearby,” which “gets worse when several people talk on cell phones” and they compete with each other to “maintain the same signal-to-noise ratio as the level of crosstalk noise grows.” This is known as the Lombard effect.

Street noise is worse too, as an audit by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli shows that the number of noise complaints in New York City more than doubled in the last five years. But the audit also shows that there are few real repercussions for violators, even for clubs and bars racking up hundreds of complaints.

So what can be done? Bartz writes of people (of means) turning to self-help measures like “digital detox” packages for a noise detoxification. But for those who can’t afford an escape to a desert island or world-class spa, what are our options? Bartz gets some practical advice from Bronzaft and Kosko, and she writes about Quiet Mark, which identifies quiet consumer products with a seal of approval and encourages manufacturers to prioritize noise reduction in product design.

But in the end it is obvious that a noise detox or a quieter dishwasher can’t achieve the kind of results that effective government regulation could. While her article is mostly spot on, we wish that Bartz had addressed what government could do to control noise. So here’s hoping that Bartz is working on Part II of a series, with the second piece focusing on what government could do to control and regulate noise, and what we must do to make them do it.

 

 

 

 

Why is New York City so noisy?

Winnie Hu, The New York Times, writes about the number one complaint in the city, noise, in, “New York Becomes the City That Never Shuts Up.” And we discover that the short answer to the question as to why the city is so noisy may be this: New York City needs more noise enforcers.

Hu interviews Richard T. McIntosh, a long-time resident of the Upper East Side who complains that he “has never heard such a racket outside his window.” Hu writes:

New York City has never been kind to human ears, from its screeching subways and honking taxis to wailing police sirens. But even at its loudest, there were always relatively tranquil pockets like the Upper East Side that offered some relief from the day-to-day cacophony of the big city. Those pockets are vanishing.

Construction is a huge factor in the increase in noise, but residents can’t escape outdoor noise by ducking into noisy city restaurants, gyms, and stores. And noise complaints have increased even after the city adopted an overhauled noise code in 2007. So what can be done? Hu writes that city councilman Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side, “has made curbing noise one of his top priorities,” adding that “[h]e and Costa Constantinides, a councilman from Queens, are proposing legislation that targets some of the most grating sounds by requiring city noise inspectors to respond within two hours when possible to catch noisemakers in the act.”

Hu reports that while “the Police Department handles the vast majority of noise complaints, inspectors with the Department of Environmental Protection also investigate mechanical sources and environmental noise, including after-hours construction, air-conditioners and ventilation equipment, alarms and even barking dogs.” So how many inspectors does the Department of Environmental Protection have? Only 54 for a city of over 8 million residents. Apparently 8 more inspectors are going to be hired this year, bringing the total number of inspectors for all five boroughs to meager 62. And the response time is equally appalling. Hu reports that median response for police officers was 152 minutes, but the median response “for noise inspectors was four days in 2016.”

With construction noise before and after hours being the top complaint in every borough except for Staten Island, it’s unreasonable to expect noise violators to change their behavior when an inspector may show up four days after a noise complaint is filed. Indeed, a recent audit of New York City noise complaints by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli found that bars and nightclubs with “hundreds of complaints lodged against them faced little or no repercussions.”

City councilman Kallos believes that increasing the number of noise inspectors “would not only deter noise but also result in more violations and fines that would offset the cost of the legislation.” Kallos adds that “[i]t is time for the city to hire as many noise inspectors as it takes to respond to complaints when they happen.” We agree. We also agree with Dr. Arline Bronzaft, Chair of Noise Committee for Grow NYC, who notes that “with eight inspectors being hired soon, apparently we do not need legislation to hire inspectors, we just need the money for increased hires to be added to the budget NOW.”

If you live in New York City and want to see Kallos’ and Constantinides’ proposed legislation move forward, contact your city council person and ask him or her to sign on. While you’re at it, ask your councilperson what his or her answer is to New York City’s noise problem. Not sure who represents you in the city council? Click here to find out.  If you reach out to your councilperson’s office, please report back and tell us how they responded in the comments.

And Dr. Daniel Fink, Chair of The Quiet Coalition, weighs in with a letter to the editor of the New York Times.

Tired of background music in public spaces? Want to make it stop?

Photo credit: Andypiper licensed under CC BY 2.0

Introducing Quiet Ann Arbor! Finally, the U.S. has a local chapter of Pipedown, a UK organization that campaigns “for freedom from piped music” (i.e., ubiquitous background music) in “pubs, restaurants and hotels; in the plane, train or bus; down the phone; ruining decent television programmes; adding to the overall levels of noise pollution in public places.”

The Ann Arbor organization has just been formed, and the website is a work in progress, but it’s a start. If you live in Ann Arbor and want the piped in music to stop, contact them by clicking this link. Their mission is simple: to promote the benefits of silence and encourage noise moderation in public. Live in the U.S. but not in Ann Arbor? Contact Pipedown to start your own chapter.

Hear, hear!

And for those who think fighting public noise is ridiculous or not worth one’s time, we note that Pipedown scored a big victory last year when it got Marks & Spencer, the UK’s biggest chain store, to turn off the piped music in their stores.

Good luck, Quiet Ann Arbor!