Hearing loss

Can Acoustic metamaterials rescue your hearing?

Photo credit: Office of Naval Research licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

Boston University’s work on acoustic metamaterials is quite interesting, but it’s a long way from being available in stores if you’re concerned about hearing loss, as you should be.

Acoustic metamaterials are an exciting if little-known area of research and development that hold promise for much better, i.e., lighter, less bulky, ways to stop noise from destroying your hearing or disrupting your sleep or concentration.

The article caught my attention because I used to teach at BU, though I don’t know this research team. And I’ve also done some grant-funded work on other acoustic metamaterials in the research lab I co-founded at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. So I am very interested in this subject.

But I mainly want to say this: The most important work on noise control right now is going on at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where leadership recognized two years ago that noise is, indeed, a serious public health hazard. That’s huge—because it brings noise out of the dark shadow it’s been hidden under at Environmental Protection Agency since 1981. The CDC’s recognition is what has triggered interest in research on a variety of solutions., and its interest should trigger funding for:

  1. Widespread work on reducing noise at the source (such as noise from airports, highways, railways, construction and \ maintenance equipment, household appliances, headphones, etc.), and
  2. Reducing noise at the receiver (such as noise-cancellation headphones or more effective, lighter, or less bulky ways to block sound from destroying your hearing).

We’ve already seen two pieces of national bi-partisan legislation pass without a fight: the 2017 bi-partisan Warren-Grassley OTC Hearing Aid Act, and the 2018 FAA Re-Authorization Act. And at the local level, a number of cities and towns have taken up the battle: Washington DC, New York City, Southampton, New York, S. Pasadena, and others.

In fact, it feels like the tide has turned on this issue after a 38-year hiatus and hearing loss is now beginning to be recognized as a serious public health hazard. But don’t wait for this BU group to commercialize their work on acoustic metamaterials because that could be decades away. Go and buy a good pair of ear plugs or a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones AND a good pair of over-the-ear “ear muffs” (they can be found at hunting or hardware stores). Then train your family members, even the youngest children, that hearing is precious and must be protected.

Sound is like the air you breathe: omnipresent, invisible, necessary, but also potentially hazardous. Nobody will protect you if you don’t protect yourself.

In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, American National Standards Institute Committee S12, Workgroup 44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group—a partner of the American Hospital Association. He is the lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), a contributor to the National Academy of Engineering report “Technology for a Quieter America,” and to the US-GSA guidance “Sound Matters”, and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He recently retired from the board of directors of the American Tinnitus Association. A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Doctors with disabilities? Yes, we are people too

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This piece from NPR discusses how doctors and researchers with disabilities are changing medicine. When a problem is a secret, it is a source of shame and can’t be dealt with. If it is disclosed and discussed, however, it may still be a problem, but it can be dealt with and it is less of a source of shame.

When I spoke at the 2017 meeting of the Institute for Noise Control Engineering in Grand Rapids, Michigan, across the river from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, I noted that his wife Betty Ford was a pioneer in discussing two formerly kept secrets–that she had breast cancer and had developed an addiction to prescription drugs. She fortunately survived her breast cancer to live many years more, and successfully dealt with her addiction. I then noted that I would publicly disclose that I had two auditory disabilities, tinnitus and hyperacusis, both fortunately mild and not life-limiting, but disabilities nonetheless.

I have mild hearing loss, too, again fortunately not life-limiting except in terms of understanding speech in a noisy environment.  Prof. Margaret Wallhagen in San Francisco has written about the stigma of hearing loss. Hearing loss should be destigmatized.

More importantly, noise-induced hearing loss should be prevented.

So avoid noise or use hearing protection if you can’t avoid it, because noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable.

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.

Loud restaurant noise drives away people with auditory disorders

Photo credi: Franklin Heijnen licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article by Marcella Bernanrdo, from the Vancouver CityNews, reports that loud restaurant noise is driving away people with hearing loss, because they can’t understand speech in noisy environments.

Ambient noise is a disability rights issue for those with auditory disorders. Right now, both the Canadian and U.S. economies appear strong and restaurants are busy, so no wonder restaurateurs see no need to make restaurants quieter even though restaurant noise is a major complaint even for those with normal hearing.

Given the lack of economic incentive, it will likely require legal action under disability rights law, or local action by dedicated activists demanding ordinances regulating noise, to make restaurants quieter.

I say there is no time like the present–get online, find your local politician, and ask him or her where they stand on 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.

New hearing aid promises better results

Photo credit: rawpixel.com from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Researchers at Columbia University have developed a new hearing aid that claims to tune out distracting voices by reading the wearer’s brain waves. People need a difference between the ambient sound level and the level of speech, called the speech-to-noise or signal-to-noise ratio, both abbreviated SNR,  to be able to understand speech. People with normal hearing need a 3 dB SNR, but those with hearing loss need a 7 dB SNR or even a 15 dB SNR to be able to understand speech.

Older analog hearing aids amplified all sounds, so they didn’t help users understand speech in a noisy environment, because all sounds were amplified. But newer digital hearing aids, with directional and tunable features, claim to have solved this problem.

I haven’t seen studies of this in peer-reviewed journals, only claims from the manufacturers. Hearing aid users have told me the costly digital hearing aids are better, but still nowhere near as good as normal hearing.

If the new hearing aids discussed in the report linked above become available commercially, they are likely to cost even more than the latest digital hearing aids, which can cost up to $8,000 for a pair.

Here’s a thought: Instead of requiring people with hearing loss to drop $8,000 for the privilege of understanding speech in public spaces, why not make restaurants and stores quieter? That would make everyone more comfortable in the space, and would help everyone understand speech.

And the simplest way of making a restaurant or store costs nothing: turn down the volume of the amplified background music!

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.

The best headphones for children? None!

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This post on the Parentology.com site discusses the best headphones for children in 2019. I disagree strongly. The best headphones for children are none at all! Why? Two reasons, one for auditory health and one for the child’s social and intellectual development.

First, for auditory health, headphones using the industrial-strength 85 decibel noise exposure level as a “safe” volume limit for a child’s tender ears isn’t safe. The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority ruled again Amazon advertising these headphones as safe for hearing because they’re not.

Second, allowing a child to isolate him or herself with headphones, first while watching a video on a device and then when listening to music when older, doesn’t allow the child to interact or communicate with others. And for the older children, the parent has no idea what the children are listening to.

Audiologists already report seeing younger patients with hearing loss and tinnitus instead of the senior population they are used to caring for.

And an epidemic of noise-induced hearing loss and other auditory problems appears to be certain in the near future.

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 you temporarily hear muffled sound after a loud noise

Photo credit: Katie Tegtmeyer licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Noise-induced temporary threshold shift, or NITTS, describes the temporary muffling of sound after a person is exposed to loud noise. This article from the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Eureka Alert details a report in the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that provides an explanation for NITTS. Namely, researchers in Sweden found changes in calcium ions in the tectorial membrane of the cochlea.

While NITTS is a real and observable finding, the idea that auditory damage from noise is temporary is most likely false. Research by Liberman and Kujawa and colleagues at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary strongly suggests that there is no such thing as temporary auditory damage. And decades of occupational noise exposure studies show that NITTS eventually becomes NIPTS, noise-induced permanent threshold shift, i.e., noise-induced hearing loss. That is, your awareness of muffled hearing following exposure to loud noise is temporary, but the damage caused by the loud noise is permanent.

Noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable. Avoid noise exposure and if one can’t avoid noise exposure, use hearing protection devices.

Because 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.

Lawyer writes about leaf blower hazards

Photo credit: Josh Larios licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition, and Jamie Banks, PhD, MS, Program Director, The Quiet Coalition

It is well known that leading commercial leaf blowers produce deafening noise levels of 100 dB or more at the ear of the operator and that the low frequency sound and vibration affect overall health. These, coupled with toxic and carcinogenic exhaust, put workers at risk for problems ranging from hearing damage, to irreversible neurological damage, heart disease, and cancer. Nevertheless, many workers do not wear protective gear and may not be aware of the risks they face.

Workers compensation law, a subset of tort law, allows injured workers to sue for medical care and compensation.

In this post at Lawyers.com, attorney Brian Allan Wall from McCann and Wall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, reviews the hazards of gas leaf blower use.  His piece shows that the legal community is aware that leaf blower noise can damage hearing and non-hearing health. If state and federal regulators won’t regulate leaf blower noise, maybe a series of workers comp lawsuits will force land care companies to either use battery electric blowers, reduce the use of gas blowers, or force manufacturers to make quieter machines.

Jamie Banks is the Executive Director of Quiet Communities, Inc. She is an environmentalist and health care scientist dedicated to promoting clean, healthy, quiet, and sustainable landscape maintenance, construction, and agricultural practices.

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.

 

Can’t hear well? There’s an app for that!

Photo credit: Courtesy of App MyEar

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article in the University of Rochester’s Rochester Review alumni magazine discusses a new app to translate personal conversations into text. The developer, Brandon Isobe, got the idea for the app because his father is deaf. The app, App MyEar, is pretty straight forward: you open the app, speak into the phone and the app translates the words into text. It’s “essentially closed captioning for personal conversations,” says Isobe.

It’s great that innovators are looking for ways to help people with hearing loss.  Of course, for those of us who can hear, preventing hearing loss by avoiding noise exposure and using hearing protection if we can’t remains the best option.

DISCLOSURE: I am a graduate of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

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.

The impact of hearing loss

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I usually don’t listen to podcasts or watch documentaries–they take too much time to transmit the information that I can read in a fraction of the time–but this discussion of the impact hearing loss by Michael Wilkes, MD, isn’t available in a print version.

I heard the tail end of Dr. Wilkes’ weekly radio segment in the car, and looked online to find the rest.

It clocks in at under 4 minutes, and it’s well worth listening to.

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.

Consumer Reports continues to focus on noise and health

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Consumer Reports continues to cover issues of noise and health, which is a good thing. The only problem with this Consumer Reports article is that falls into a common trap and cites the occupational recommended exposure level of 85 A-weighted decibels for application to the public. This is a misuse of the occupational exposure recommendation that is sadly all too common.

Noise is different from other occupational exposures, e.g., ionizing radiation or toxic solvents, because exposure continues outside the workplace, all day long, all year long, for an entire lifetime.

In 1974, the Environmental Protection Agency adjusted the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended exposure level for the additional exposure time–24 hours a day instead of 8 hours a day at work, 365 days a year instead of 240 days in the factory, to calculate that the safe noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss was a time-weighted average of only 70 decibels.

The EPA did not adjust for lifetime exposure, probably because in 1974 the life expectancy of a man was only 67 years.  But with people living on average to near 80, the additional years of noise exposure may account for the very high prevalence of hearing loss in older people.

The NIOSH Science Blog post on February 8, 2016, covered this topic, and I wrote about it in the American Journal of Public Health in 2017. In a requested blog post, I explained additional reasons why the real safe noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss has to be lower than 70 decibels.

I recently had this insight: the World Health Organization recommends only one hour of 85 A-weighted decibel noise exposure daily because after only one hour it is impossible for the listener to achieve the only evidence-based safe noise level to prevent hearing loss, which is the EPA’s 70 dB daily noise dose.  An occupational noise calculator shows this calculation. So, 85 decibels isn’t safe for workers’ hearing, and it certainly isn’t safe for the public.

Our ears are like our knees–we only have two of them–but unlike knees, our ears can’t be replaced. So protect what you have and remember: it is 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.