Health and Noise

Noise pollution in Arizona

This photo of an F-16 Fighting Falcon taking off from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona is in the public domain

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This podcast from Arizona Public Media discusses noise pollution in Arizona. The particular issue in the Tucson area is fighter jet noise from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. A-10s are noisy but still quieter than F-16s. Residents are now concerned about the possible stationing of new F-35 jets, which are much louder.

The first half of the podcast is citizens explaining their noise problems in the Tucson area. The second have is an interview with The Quiet Coalition’s Richard Neitzel, PhD, on the faculty of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Prof. Neitzel is heard at about minute 16 of the podcast, where he discusses the adverse effects of noise on health.

Aircraft noise pollution is well-studied as a health and public health hazard, and is known to cause hypertension and other cardiovascular disease and also interference with learning in schools located beneath flight paths. Do click to listen to the podcast, as it’s well worth your time.

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.

Noise is still bad for health

This photograph of Dr. William H. Stewart is in the public domain

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The World Health Organization has found that noise is bad for health, leading it to develop an Environmental Noise Guidelines for Europe. To prepare for the writing of this document, WHO commissioned systematic reviews of the published scientific evidence about this topic.

Systematic reviews are a well-recognized way of summarizing scientific evidence according to a pre-specified protocol to arrive at evidence-based conclusions.

The UK’s Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs recently commissioned a systematic review of newer scientific evidence about the effects of environmental noise on mental health, well-being, quality of life, cancer, dementia, birth, reproductive outcomes, and cognition.

And guess what? As WHO found, DEFRA also found that a lot of the evidence is not of the highest scientific quality, but there is still sufficient evidence to conclude that environmental noise is bad for health.

We wish health authorities in the U.S. would understand this soon. At The Quiet Coalition, we sometimes circulate draft blog posts among ourselves for input or comment or correction. TQC’s Arline Bronzaft, PhD, a pioneering noise researcher who showed that elevated train noise interfered with schoolchildren learning, offered these additional comments:

EPA stated in 1978 in Noise: A Health Problem, that “[i]t is finally clear that noise is a significant hazard to public health.” We need to remind EPA of this statement, made forty years before the WHO statement. Dr. William H. Stewart, former surgeon general, in 1969 acknowledged we did not have “every link in the chain of causation” but still warned us about dangers of noise.

Thanks to Dr. Bronzaft for reminding us that in the U.S. the health hazards of noise pollution have been known for decades.

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.

Road traffic noise causes diabetes and hypertension

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report from US News & World Report discusses a Canadian study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, showing that long-term exposure to road traffic noise causes diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure).

The research article on which the US News report is based is available online. As the authors note, this is the largest such study done in North America. Other factors, including universal health care in Canada, minimize the risk of selection bias.

And the findings are consistent with animal research and other similar studies done in Europe and elsewhere in Canada. Road traffic noise and aircraft noise are recognized in Europe as health hazards.

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.

March 3rd is World Hearing Day

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Each year the World Health Organization designates March 3 as World Hearing Day. WHO also chooses a theme each year. For this year’s World Hearing Day, the theme is “Don’t let hearing loss limit you. Hearing for life.”

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention works with the WHO to help support and promote World Hearing Day, and The Quiet Coalition in turn works with CDC to help spread the word.

Our focus is on prevention of hearing loss and other auditory disorders like tinnitus and hyperacusis. We suggest installing a sound level meter on your smartphone. The app from CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is accurate and free.

But you don’t need a sound meter to know if it’s too loud. If you can’t carry on a conversation at the normal social distance of 3-4 feet, the ambient noise is above 75 A-weighted decibels* and your auditory health is in danger.

One simple rule can help preserve your hearing: if it sounds too loud, it IS too loud!

Turn down the volume of amplified sound, insert earplugs, leave the noisy environment, or be at risk for needing hearing aids later.

*A-weighting adjusts sound measurements for the frequencies heard in human speech.

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.

NIDCD Director Tucci says hearing health is a global priority

Photo courtesy of theNational Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Debara Tucci, MD, M.S., M.B.A., Director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, issued a statement on February 27 concerning the World Health Organization’s World Hearing Day, which is observed on March 3 every year. In her statement, Dr. Tucci highlighted NIDCD’s “research and initiatives to prevent, detect, and treat hearing loss in the United States and beyond.”

I would hope that among these initiatives is the provision of accurate health education information to the public. Unfortunately, information on NIDCD websites and NIDCD’s Noisy Planet site still contains inaccurate and misleading information about the 85 decibel (dB) sound level. For example, the NIDCD site includes statements like “long or repeated exposure to sound at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss” and “[k]now which noises can cause damage (those at or above 85 dBA).” And Noisy Planet says that “[r]esearchers have found that people who are exposed over long periods of time to noise levels at 85 dBA or higher are at a much greater risk for hearing loss.”

As I have written in the American Journal of Public Health, 85 dB without an exposure time limit is not a safe noise exposure level for the public. The difference between an occupational noise exposure level and a possible exposure level for the public was discussed in the NIOSH Science Blog on February 8, 2016.

The NIDCD’s 85 dB “standard” is derived from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s 85 dBA (A-weighted decibels*) recommended occupational exposure level. This level does not protect all exposed workers from noise-induced hearing loss. The only evidence-based safe noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss was calculated by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1974: a time-weighted average of 70 decibels for 24 hours.

The World Health Organization only recommends one hour at 85 dBA to prevent hearing loss. Mathematically, this is the same as the EPA’s 70 decibels for a day. That’s sound advice!

Unfortunately, because the NIDCD uses 85 dB, this has become the de facto federal standard for noise exposure. It is widely if incorrectly cited by audiologists in media reports and in their online advertising as a safe noise level or the level at which auditory damage begins and is used as a volume limit for headphones advertised as “safe” for children’s hearing, without an exposure time being specified;

I wish Dr. Tucci and NIDCD would disseminate useful and correct information to the public, rather than continuing to imply that 85 dB is a safe noise exposure level for the public. It just isn’t.

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.

Why can’t you hear?

Photo credit: Helena Lopes from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This piece in the Canadian edition of Psychology Today asks “Why can’t you hear?,” but a better title might be “Why can’t you understand speech in a noisy room?”

This problem is known in audiology circles as the “speech in noise” problem. People can understand what someone is saying just fine in a quiet room, but can’t follow a conversation in a noisy one. The problem has been known for decades, but now it is thought that the cause is cochlear synaptopathy, also called hidden hearing loss because hearing test results–technically known as pure tone audiometry–are normal despite the patient’s complaints of not being able to hear.

The problem can be assessed clinically by a number of tests, including the Hearing in Noise Test and the QuickSIN test. Now researchers at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary have developed two tests, one measuring pupillary responses and the other recording electrical signals from the ear drum.

The inability to understand speech in noise is a frustrating one. Hearing aids usually don’t help much, although newer digital hearing aids with special features claim to do better.

Much better than any hearing aid, though, is preserved natural hearing. Protect your ears. If something sounds too loud, it is too loud. Turn down the volume, use hearing protection, leave the area, or you might have speech n noise difficulty later.

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.

Harvard Medical School looks at hearing and brain health

Photo credit: A Health Blog licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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

Harvard Medical School publishes a number of useful, consumer-oriented newsletters and blogs on issues related to health. Sometimes they touch on noise-induced hearing loss and other hearing-related concerns. In this recent blog, James Maple, MD, discusses hearing health and its relationship to brain function. If you’re looking for some insight into this issue that avoids the hype, this is a good place to start. Research has recently shown that there is a clear correlation between diminished hearing and decline in cognitive function. Research is ongoing to determine whether there is a clear causal link between the two and how it might work. What is clear is that that preventing hearing loss is important.

An earlier article in this same publication gives an overview of the emerging market for personal sound amplification products, a market that opened last month thanks to the Warren-Grassley Act passed in 2017 and signed into law in 2018.  This law enables high tech “hearing assistive devices” to be sold over the counter without a prescription at drug stores, via online stores, etc.—for 1/10th the price of typical hearing aids. So now for a few hundred dollars you can purchase hearing assistive devices, try them out, and decide whether they’ll help you (or someone you know whom you suspect needs them). This article provides a useful, non-hyped description of PSAPs that makes good background reading before you begin shopping.

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.

Can hearing aids help prevent dementia?

Photo credit: Vilma Liella licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Can hearing aids help prevent dementia? This comprehensive article in the New York Times magazine section discusses the research suggesting that they might.

Of course, it’s far better to prevent hearing loss in the first place by avoiding loud noise exposure or using earplugs if one can’t avoid the noise. And it’s far cheaper, too.

There are smart phone sound meter apps to measure ambient noise levels, but one doesn’t need a sound meter to know if it’s too loud. If the noise is loud enough to interfere with conversation at the normal social distance of 3 to 4 feet, it’s loud enough to damage your hearing.

Just remember: if it sounds too loud, it is too loud!

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.

AARP focuses on musicians and hearing loss

Photo credit: Alex G licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

Noise-induced hearing loss afflicts people of all ages, but since it’s cumulative and incurable, the greatest burden falls on older people who have incessantly exposed themselves to loud noise in their careers and due to recreational choices. Such is the case with many stars in music and entertainment. AARP recently reviewed research from Germany that analyzed the heath insurance records of 7 million people from 2004 to 2008 and found that “working musicians are nearly four times more likely to suffer noise-induced hearing loss than those in any other profession”…. and they were “57% more likely to have tinnitus brought on by their work.”

Hearing Health magazine also recently reported on this and included a list of a dozen well-known performers who’ve given up music due to hearing loss.

So if you’re wondering why some of your favorite rock stars aren’t touring any more, it’s possible they simply can’t hear what they’re performing. Sure, everybody knows classical composer Ludwig von Beethoven wrote—and even conducted–some his finest work after he was completely deaf. But if you’ve read about him, you would also know how profoundly unhappy he was about it.

Our ability to hear isn’t self-repairing–once you’ve blown your ears, they’re gone for good. So it’s good news that AARP seems to be awakening to the problem of noise-induced hearing loss. They’re big and powerful enough to get things done in Washington DC, where the health effects of exposure to loud sound was swept under the rug nearly 40 years ago. It’s definitely time for AARP to pay attention!

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.

David Owen’s “Volume Control” gains attention

Photo credit: Nicholas Githiri from Pexels

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

New Yorker writer David Owen’s new book, “Volume Control,” continues to attract attention. On Friday, February 7, National Public Radio’s Kara Miller interviewed Owen on her show “Innovation Hub” (look for the episode “Can you hear me now?” in the link above).

Last November 5th, NPR’s Terry Gross interviewed Owen about his new book on “Fresh Air.” If you haven’t picked up a copy, do so–or tell your library to buy several copies because it’s in demand. Owen’s interview with Kara Miller begins by Owen describing Dr. Arline Bronzaft’s landmark research on the impacts of noise on kids’ ability to learn in Manhattan in the 1970s, a piece of research that led to an ANSI national standard and broad awareness of learning deficits. That was a true success during the brief period in the 1970s before noise was “pushed off the table” by industries that didn’t want to be bothered and a U.S. president who, though hearing-impaired himself, didn’t think the issue merited national attention.

Now it’s back. Owen’s book is one of a string of popular books that have emerged over the past decade on this subject: George Prochnik’s well-reviewed book “In Pursuit of Silence” (2010) became a successful documentary film with the same title in 2015. Garrett Keizer’s 2010 book “The Unwanted Sound Of Everything We Want” got excellent reviews in 2012. And also in 2012, the book “Why Noise Matters,” with a chapter by Dr. Bronzaft, has contributed to the public dialogue on the issue of noise and noise control. And, of course, there’s the National Academy of Engineering report in 2011, “Technology for a Quieter America,” and the World Health Organization’s two-volume “Burden of Disease from Environmental Noise.”

But David Owen’s book is not a “policy treatise”—it’s a wonderfully entertaining narrative filled with fascinating first-hand stories. And underneath it all he recognizes that noise is fundamentally a health problem—and a burgeoning public health problem. Watch his short video for The New Yorker to get a taste: 

This book deserves everyone’s attention—so if you’re a member of a book club, please recommend it!

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.