Health and Noise

Harmful transit noise can be reduced

Photo credit: William Davies has dedicated this photo into the public domain

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

I recently learned about another group of people being subjected to the harsh and dangerous noises emitted from a railway. In this case it is the Squamish Nation community in Vancouver whose lives are being disrupted by engine noise, engines idling in the middle of the night and early in the morning, and 100 decibel whistle blows at night at a protected crossing. In response to these complaints, the Canadian National Railway has commented that “there will always be some noise associated with operations.” The Railway goes on to say that it has made efforts to minimize their operations.

First, let me note the research that has demonstrated that noise is harmful to health and well-being and this includes railroad noise. Second, having been a consultant to the New York City Transit Authority on rail noise and knowledgeable about the underlying causes of rail noise, I feel comfortable in wondering whether the Canadian Railway has done everything it could to lessen its system noise. This is underscored by the railway simply saying efforts have been made to lessen noise without citing examples. I would also venture to assume that the railway might believe that reducing noise could be costly. In fact, by reducing noise the New York City Transit Authority actually saved money. The building of less noisy traction motors for its trains resulted in a more efficient motor that would last longer and smoothing the rails didn’t just lessen noise, it placed less stress on the city’s aging structure where stress can lead to increased breakdowns.

It has been over forty years since my first transit noise study which found that children in classrooms exposed to passing elevated train noise had lower reading scores. Yes, we were able to remedy the noise of the passing trains and the children’s learning improved. Now all these years later, I still find that individuals are being exposed to harmful transit noise and the agency in charge appears to accept the idea that the people living near the noise have to learn to live with it.

Thanks to the Noise Curmudgeon for the story link.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Protecting your ears at protests

Photo credit: Kelly Lacy from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article in Popular Mechanics reports on the recent use of military helicopters flying low over peaceful protests in our nation’s capital.

Helicopters at normal operating altitudes are too noisy, and at 40 feet over the ground are dangerously noisy. Flash-bang devices being used by police are also noisy.

If you are going to march in one of the demonstrators protesting police brutality and George Floyd’s death, put a pair of earplugs in your pocket.

Because if something 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.

Turn down the volume

Photo credit: Nicholas Githiri from Pexels

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

Turning down the volume” by Maria Papadodimitraki (translated from Greek by Antigone Debbaut) is another article addressing the need to pay more attention to the harmful impacts of noise pollution on our physical and mental health. What especially drew my attention to this article was its introductory statement: “Noise pollution is a form of violence.” Those words were said by Voula Pagagianni, an educator and president of the Hellenic Young Children’s University.

Papadodimitraki supports the need to reduce noise by citing the large body of research on the adverse effects of noise on our hearing, cardiovascular system, sleep, cognitive performance, and overall psychological well being. She also includes references that man-made noises harm other species as well, e.g. marine organisms, birds.

Yet, she reports some good news, too. Namely, that cities such as Stockhom, Vienna, and Zurich are taking actions to reduce noise pollution. This includes installing acoustic fencing and soundproof windows in apartments exposed to high levels of noise, traffic calming measures on roads, promotion of bicycle use and introducing electric buses. But as Athanasios Trochidis, emeritus professor, civil engineering, at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, tells Papadodimitraki, “[p]erhaps the best way to deal with noise pollution is prevention—to not make noise.”

On another positive note, the author points out that the European Union has set sound level standards aimed to “counteract the negative impact of noise pollution on health.” She adds, unfortunately, that the U.S. “has much higher—some would say lower standards” when referring to what would be considered tolerable noise exposures. This should not be surprising to the anti-noise advocates in the U.S. long concerned about the high sound level standards set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The article’s strong introduction is followed with a strong concluding quote by Professor Nikos Barkas, who says:

Noise pollution is a factor in the deterioration of our quality of life. This is why it is crucial that we change our attitude to noise pollution and take action to address the problem.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

How the lockdown allows us to hear nature

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

Dr. Richard leBrasseur, who studies the differences between urban and rural landscapes and the influences of these landscapes on human development and behavior, concludes his article “How COVID-19 shutdowns are allowing us to hear more of nature” by asking urban dwellers to go out onto their porch or balcony to listen to the “sounds of nature.” I live on the Upper East Side in Manhattan and did not need to go onto my terrace to hear the sounds of birds this morning. They awakened me at 6:40 a.m. as they did a few days ago. What a wonderful way to wake up on a street that is usually bustling with traditional loud urban sounds.

Dr. leBrasseur reports on sound measurements of urban and nature sounds taken before the pandemic and then after the pandemic changed our soundscapes. In his February readings in Truro, Nova Scotia, he recorded the sounds of cars, planes, barking dogs, etc. which were rated quite high on the decibel scale used to measure the loudness of sounds. But in April he was recording nature sounds in these same locations which were considerably lower on the decibel scale. While Dr. leBrasseur acknowledges that some people enjoy urban soundscapes, he points to the research that has found that these sounds can still have a negative effect on our health. On the other hand, he cites the research that has demonstrated the benefits of natural sounds to our health. These include “reduced heart rate, reduced levels of anxiety, increased positive emotions, overall wellbeing and increased productivity.”

Urban dwellers generally have to travel to quieter areas to enjoy the sounds of nature and reap their benefits. I wonder if the natural sounds that they are experiencing now can indeed bring them the comfort that is traditionally associated with such sounds. I ask this because the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has elicited feelings of stress and anxiety. Additionally, many urban dwellers report today that they miss the city sounds that were at one time viewed as disturbing. One cannot blame them for essentially “missing their old lives.”

For now, I agree with Dr. leBrasseur when he says we should go out and listen to nature in our neighborhoods. “It won’t last.”

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

May is Better Hearing and Speech Month

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

As I have written previously, I’m not a big believer in special days or months. As far as I’m concerned, every day is World Hearing Day, every month is Better Hearing and Speech Month, and, of course, this month every day is Mother’s Day!

But I have also acknowledged that it helps to have a special day or month to celebrate something or someone and to remind us of important events or topics.

Thanks to our friends at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for all the helpful information they have prepared on protecting our hearing, which they are sharing with the public every month.

Please stay safe, both from COVID and from noise.

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.

Could noise be a risk factor for hypertension?

Photo credit: Kateryna Babaieva from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Could noise be a risk factor for hypertension? This fascinating study from Chengdu, China, suggests that the answer is yes. The study design is innovative. The investigators measured bilateral high frequency hearing loss (BHFHL) and blood pressure in 21,000 workers, with an average age of 40. Hearing loss was a proxy measure for occupational noise exposure. Workers with greater hearing loss, as measured by audiometric tests, had a greater risk of also having high blood pressure.

The study is an exploratory one, and it is cross-sectional, i.e., the workers were not followed for decades and the study is based on one-time measurements of hearing and blood pressure. Other factors known to be associated with hypertension, such as weight and alcohol consumption, were not documented. And only a proxy measure of occupational noise exposure, bilateral high frequency hearing loss, was used, rather than actual noise measurements in the workplace. But the number of workers studied was large enough to provide high statistical significance, and the results were striking. As the researchers noted, “subjects having mild and high BHFHL had a higher hypertension risk of 34% and 281%, respectively (both P<0.001). Dose-response relationship between BHFHL and hypertension was found in both males and females.”

Studies done in the U.S. also show a correlation between occupational noise exposure and hypertension. The Chinese study may show a stronger relationship between occupational noise exposure and hypertension because workplace protections and their enforcement may be less stringent in China than in the U.S.

What are the implications of this study for public health? More than 100 million Americans have high blood pressure. At least two studies show that noise exposure in everyday life is great enough to cause hearing loss. Is it also great enough to contribute to the epidemic of hypertension in the U.S.?

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.

Rethinking sirens during the pandemic

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

Councilperson Helen Rosenthal and several other members of the New York City Council have introduced legislation to alter the tones of the city’s ambulance and vehicle sirens so that they would be in line with those used in European countries. The European sirens, we have been told, are just as effective but not as shrill as the city sirens that are  offensive and disturbing to New York City residents. In response to residents living near Mount Sinai hospital who have complained about the hospital’s sirens for years, the hospital did play different sirens at a community meeting last year and, indeed, the European ‘high-low’ tone was judged the least offensive.

Yet, the intrusive sirens continue to be used in New York City. This despite the fact, as Julia Vitullo-Martin writes in her article “Sirens and Suffering: Rethinking the Soundtrack of the Coronavirus Crisis, ”that these excessively loud sirens are both a health risk to emergency responders themselves as well as nearby residents exposed to these loud sounds.”

The traditional argument for dangerously loud sirens has been the need to move traffic so that emergency vehicles can get to their destinations as quickly as possible. Yet, with the pandemic slowing city traffic considerably, why must New Yorkers be subjected to these? With so many people now confined to their homes, more New Yorkers have become aware of these “much too loud” sirens. In addition to being a health hazard before the pandemic, these frequent sirens have engendered even greater anxiety in New Yorkers who view them as reminders of the illnesses and deaths brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

Vitullo-Martin uses the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic to question the city’s justification in retaining these offensive blaring sirens. Why with traffic down, are the sirens still sounding like jet takeoffs? With fewer vehicles on the road, do you really need the blaring sirens to tell the cars and trucks to move over? Supposedly, there are protocols to direct drivers when to use full sirens. Vitullo-Martin suggests the pandemic might get city planners to rethink traffic patterns in a way that would make it less difficult for emergency vehicles to get to their destinations. And the City Council legislation on the high-low tone sirens may have a better chance of passing.

I know the coronovirus pandemic has been more than a horrific experience for New Yorkers but it is out of such experiences that new ideas to improve the health and well-being of citizens come forth. As Vitullo-Martin suggests, one such idea may lead to fewer health-hazardous emergency vehicle sirens.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

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 is linked to 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 is linked to 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.