Noise and children

Deja Vu: American Classrooms Are Still Too Noisy

By Arline L. Bronzaft, PhD, Founding Member, The Quiet Coalition

Editor’s note: The impact of environmental noise on kids’ performance in public schools is a sadly familiar one—even though solutions have long been known—witness this article about classroom noise in Decatur, Georgia. Selective progress has been made—thanks to four decades of work on this subject by one of The Quiet Coalition’s co-founders, Dr. Arline Bronzaft, including development of an ANSI standard for Classroom Acoustics*.  We asked Dr. Bronzaft to reflect on this four-decade-long project. Here are her thoughts:

In the mid-1970s, a parent of an elementary school child (like the Decatur parent, C. Aiden Downey, in the article above), asked me, her psychology professor, to help her lessen the noise intruding on her child’s classroom learning. The source of the noise were passing trains on elevated train tracks in New York City. We needed proof to back up her claim that noise intruded on learning.  With the help of the principal of P.S. 98 in Upper Manhattan, my co-author and I conducted a study which demonstrated that by the sixth grade children attending P.S. 98 classrooms near the tracks were nearly a year behind in reading compared to children on the quiet side of the building. Armed with proof and the support from public officials and the media, my requests to the Transit Authority and the Board of Education resulted in noise abatement on the tracks and in the classrooms. After the abatement was in place, a second study at the school found that children on both sides of the building were reading at the same level.

Today, forty years later, the Decatur parent above is lamenting about the intrusion of noise in his child’s classroom despite numerous publications on the deleterious effects of noise on learning, including several of my writings on how architects, engineers, and planners can involve themselves more assertively in providing quieter classrooms. Even former President Obama commented on noise near schools. Early in his first term, in a talk before Congress, he referred to a child in the audience who attended a school in Dillon, South Carolina, where teaching had “…to stop six times a day because the train barrels by their classroom.” I later learned that this student’s school did get funding to address its leaks and peeling paint and, one hopes, the noise. But President Obama turned a “deaf ear” to pleas to revitalize the noise arm of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and today, under Scott Pruitt, the EPA’s website on noise has been weakened.

The way to reduce classroom noise is known; it is the will that is lacking. It is this message that Dr. Downey and the parents of school children in Decatur and elsehwere have to bring to their local authorities. They can count on my assistance.

*Development of the ANSI Classroom Acoustics Standard was kick-started by Dr. Bronzaft; it was based on her research and encouraged by the U.S. Access Board. Development was carried out over a decade by a stalwart band of engineers. Since completion of the standard, several states have adopted it into their building codes. But all building codes are local, so this national standard will only be adopted by local school building programs if parents are actively engaged in the decision-making regarding school construction and renovation. Only parents can press their local school boards to recognize that research has proven noise interferes with learning and impairs children’ future success. Meanwhile, noisy classrooms will continue to be a problem across the U.S.

Originally posted on The Quiet Coalition blog.

Korean study finds 2 in 10 students hard of hearing

Photo credit: Republic of Korea licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

and, sadly, that school checkups failed to identify adolescents with hearing loss.  Korea Biomedical Review reports that “[i]nadequate hearing tests done by schools have been unable to find many teens with hearing problems resulting from the portable audio system and frequent visits to Internet cafes.”  The results call into question “statistics at Korea’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) and school tests conducted in 2010.”

The implications are significant:

The [study] found that 12.7 percent of seventh-grade students and 10.4 percent of 10th-grade students fell into the World Health Organization’s category of hearing loss (cannot hear at 15 decibels). When the high frequency is included, 17.9 percent of the 7th graders and 16.5 percent of 10th graders belong to the category of possible noise-induced hearing loss.

By contrast, school tests conducted in 2010 only found 5.4% of students with hearing loss.

The researchers cautioned that “[h]earing impairment can affect a student’s academic performance and can continue to create barriers to communication in social life and the workplace,” adding that “[t]he social cost of neglecting this problem can reach up to 72.6 billion won ($63.6 million).”

Meanwhile, in the U.S., are hearing exams required in primary schools?  They should be, because regular hearing exams would identify children at risk of hearing loss and would make children aware of the importance of protecting their hearing.

Another review site tackles “kid-friendly” earbuds and headphones

And TJ Donegan, Reviewed.com, concludes that you should never let your kids use your earbuds. Why? His review finds that headphones and earbuds could be dangerous for your kids’ ears. Donegan starts his article by stating that as a father to a young daughter:

I feel like I need to constantly worry about her safety. Worse, every other day there’s some jerk online telling me to be terrified of something new. Well, today I’m that jerk, but this is important: your headphones may be dangerous.

Donegan notes that most people probably recognize that loud concerts can damage hearing, but adds that “researchers and groups like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control (sic) have established that routine exposure to moderately loud sounds can permanently damage your hearing, with up to 1.1 billion people at risk.” The risk is of particular concern for children, as they “frequently listen to music at max volume.” 

This point was driven home for Donegan who says that “when testing for our roundup of the best headphones for kids…we found that even something as simple as an Apple iPhone 7 Plus and the included earbuds can dramatically exceed the recommended levels at full volume, posing a risk after just a few minutes.”  In the course of testing volume-limiting, “kid safe” headphones, Donegan and his associates found that “many exceeded their own advertised maximum limits” or the safeguards were easy for children to remove. 

Donegan then explores the issue of “how loud is too loud,” stating that “though health experts have been studying this for decades, there isn’t a clear point at which damage is guaranteed to occur.”  He cites the “consensus” standard that holds that “you are at risk of noise-induced hearing loss if you’re exposed to an average volume of 85 decibels for 8 hours in a day,” but adds that “[i]t’s important to note that we’re not entirely sure where the safe zone really ends, and because noise-induced hearing loss is irreversible, caution is definitely the way to go.”  There is more than a hint of skepticism about safe standards in this article, as there should be.  As noted noise activist Dr. Daniel Fink has written in his editorial in the American Journal of Public Health, the 85 dBA standard is “an occupational noise exposure standard [that] is not a safe standard for the public.”

After an exhaustive review of hundreds of headphones, including 20 pairs of volume-limiting headphones, Donegan distills the findings into guidelines he plans on using when his daughter starts using headphones, including using volume-limiting headphones that play at or below recommended sound levels and limiting headphone use to under one hour a day.

To see Donegan’s full list of guidelines and learn more about the methodology used to review volume-limiting headphones, click the link in the first paragraph.

Link via @earables.

One reason we don’t hear about “open schools” anymore:

Photo credit: missbossy

They’re noisy! Steve Drummond, NPR, looks back at education policy in the 1960’s and 1970’s which gave birth to the “Open Education” model (among other things). Under this model there were “[n]o whole-class lessons, no standardized tests, and no detailed curriculum,” and often no walls. Wide open spaces prevailed.

Drummond visited one of the few remaining schools built with the open school concept in mind, Benjamin Orr Elementary School. The goal of the open school was to encourage collaboration (does that sound familiar?), but one glaring problem at open schools like Benjamin Orr is the noise. So the teachers there try to adapt by creating walls within the big open space. That’s not a surprise, because as Drummond tells us:

Historians say that’s pretty much why this open school design died out. Bottom line: Too loud. Too distracting. Teachers hated it.

Benjamin Orr Elementary School is going to be torn down and a new school built next door–a new school that will not be open (and will have better heating and cooling, too). But don’t despair.  Although the open school concept didn’t live up to its promise, one of the teachers Drummond interviews noted that “open education isn’t so much about the floor plan, but the way teachers work together and work with their students.”

 

Sounding off on noise

Jeanine Barone, writing for Principa-Scientific International, interviews Arline Bronzaft, PhD, asking Dr. Bronzaft about her lifetime of fighting noise. Dr. Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist, is a professor emerita of psychology at Lehman College, City University of New York, and an expert witness in court cases and government hearings on the impact of noise on mental and physical well-being.  She also is a founding member of The Quiet Coalition.

Barone wonders whether noise has to be loud to affect people, to which Dr. Bronzaft responds that noise doesn’t necessarily have to be loud to affect someone because “[n]oise is any unwanted, uncontrollable, or unpredictable sound.”  Dr. Bronzaft describes the negative effects of noise on health and quality of life, including its impact on children’s learning.

That noise is understood to be detrimental to children’s learning is due in large part to Dr. Bronzaft’s landmark study of an elementary school adjacent to an elevated train track in New York City. On one side of the building “the classrooms were exposed to passing train noise every 4.5 minutes,” while on the other side of the building “the classrooms were not intruded upon by passing train noise.”  Dr. Bronzaft’s study showed that “[b]y the sixth grade, the children exposed to noise were nearly a year behind in reading.”

But Dr. Bronzaft didn’t conclude her study and move on.  Rather, she brought the data to the transit authority and convinced them to employ noise suppression technology on the nearby tracks.  Some years later she did a follow-up study that found that the noise had decreased and “children on both sides of the school were reading at the same level.”

Click the link to learn more about Dr. Bronzaft’s work

What can you do to protect your children’s hearing?

Doctors say kids are at higher risk for hearing loss. Dr. Rachel Wood, an audiologist with the LSU Health and Sciences Center, studies and treats hearing loss patients, and increasingly she is seeing younger patients. Dr. Wood says that there are a “growing number of factors that cause hearing loss.” One particular concern is that “[c]hildren especially can plug into their phone and crank up the volume, turn up the sound effects on video games, or even watch rock concerts on their computers.”

Dr. Wood finds headphones to be “especially troubling,” stating:

There are tiny sensors in your inner ear that are very sensitive. Loud sounds damage those sensors, and if they’re destroyed, they will never grow back, which leads to hearing loss. The amount of damage is based on the volume of the sound and how close the sound is to your ear. Since headphones put the sound right next to those sensors, it magnifies the damage.

So what can you do to protect your child’s hearing?  Dr. Wood suggests that parents set volume limits on electronic devices such as phones.  She also advises parents to impose time limits for using headphones and have their children take a break every 30 to 60 minutes.  Finally, if your children are going to events with loud noises, such as concerts or fireworks displays, hand them a pair of ear plugs.  Purchased in bulk, ear plugs are a cheap and easy way to protect your children’s hearing.

 

 

 

Are loud concerts bad for Beyoncé’s unborn twins?

Tom Avril, Phillynews.com, writes about the impact of loud music on the unborn. Avril notes that “[r]esearchers cannot perform a controlled laboratory study, because it would be unethical to expose pregnant women to anything that might damage a fetus,” but he adds that there are “a few observational studies of pregnant women who work in noisy environments.”  Sadly, the conclusion of those studies is mixed. Avril cites a 2016 study on prenatal noise exposure in Sweden that revealed that for “women in a workplace with sound levels above 85 decibels, children exposed in utero were slightly more likely to suffer impaired hearing than children born to mothers whose workplaces measured below 75 decibels.”  But other studies, he states, did not find noise to be a problem.

Avril speaks to Lindsay Bondurant, a pediatric audiologist at Salus University in Elkins Park, who offers that while a one time exposure to a concert should be fine, chronic exposure could be a problem. Rock concerts can reach much higher decibel levels than one would typically be exposed to–up to 120 decibels. Catherine Palmer, director of audiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, explains that exposure is different for the fetus than its mother, because “the sound travels through the mother’s abdomen.”  She cautions, however, that “timing of the exposure may matter, as well, depending on the developmental stage of the auditory pathway.”

So, what should one do?  With conflicting and incomplete information, we would err on the side of caution. As Pediatric audiologist Bondurnat opined, exposure to the sound at one concert should be fine. So unless you are Beyonce, keep your exposure to loud sound to one concert during a pregnancy.  And don’t forget to bring ear plugs to the one concert you attend. Developing a practice of using ear protection in loud spaces will come in handy once your child is old enough to attend noisy events with you.  After all, it will be easier to get your child to wear ear plugs if she sees her parents doing it.

Update: Before this post was published, the NY Times reported that Beyonce pulled out of Coachella ‘Following the Advice of Her Doctors’.  Apparently her doctors advised her to keep a less rigorous schedule.  We like to think that they suggested some quiet time too.

 

Hearing Loss Is Growing


From the book The Human Body and Health Revised by Alvin Davison, 1908 / Public Domain

And Experts Say Earphones Are Part Of The Problem.

Mack interviews audiologist Michele Abrams who spoke about limiting exposure to damaging sound:

When we think about decibel levels, when we think of loudness levels, it’s really incremental.  It’s a logarithmic scale. It’s not a linear scale. So we know that 85 db is that critical level. Eighty-five db, eight hours a day, that’s your maximum. If it’s 90 db — five db greater — you have to cut your time in half.

While generally informative, Abrams’ comment unfortunately identifies 85 db, eight hours a day as the “critical level.”  But this noise exposure level is too high.  It was developed solely as an occupational noise exposure standard and should never be applied to the general public, certainly not to children.  As Dr. Daniel Fink, a noted noise activist, wrote in, “What Is A Safe Noise Level For The Public?”:

In the absence of a federal standard, an occupational standard meant to prevent hearing loss appears to have become the de facto safe level for all public noise exposures. This is demonstrated by the use of 85 decibels as a safe sound level by hearing health professionals and their organizations, in media reports, and in publications, most often without time limits; by its use as a volume limit for children’s headphones marketed to prevent hearing loss, again without exposure times; and by general acceptance of higher indoor and outdoor noise levels in the United States.

*   *   *
Eighty-five decibels is not a safe noise exposure level for the public. In 1972, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health developed an 85 A-weighted decibel recommended exposure level to reduce the risk of hearing loss from occupational noise exposure. … Even with strict time limits, this standard does not protect all workers from hearing loss.

So what is a safe noise level for the public?  Dr. Fink states:

In 1974 the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) adjusted the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommendation for additional exposure time: 24 instead of 8 hours daily and 365 instead of 240 days annually.  The EPA calculated the safe noise level for the public to prevent hearing loss to be a 70-decibel time-weighted average for a 24-hour period… The EPA did not adjust for lifetime noise exposure, now almost 80 years versus 40 work-years, so the real average safe noise level to prevent hearing loss is probably lower.

One thing is clear, allowing children to use earbuds or headphones without limiting volume and time exposure is a recipe for hearing loss.  Since the federal government has abdicated its authority to regulate noise, and manufacturers are unlikely to design products that limit the user’s ability to deliver as many decibels as he or she wants, parents must step in to protect their children’s hearing.  Here’s something that will help: Don’t allow your children to wear earbuds and headphones.  Tell them that if they want to listen to music they must play it through a speaker.  While this may be unpopular, know that you will be giving your children an important gift–the ability to listen to and enjoy music throughout their lifetimes.

 

 

Is Your Noisy Neighborhood Slowly Killing You?

Inside the science of negative sound effects, and what we can do about them.Mother Jones, writes about our increasingly noisy world and how this noisy soundscape is “contributing to stress-related diseases and early death, especially in and around cities.”  The problem is that ‘[b]y evolutionary necessity, noise triggers a potent stress response.”  Williams explains that “[o]ur nervous systems react to noises that are loud and abrupt…by instructing our bodies to boost the heart rate, breathe less deeply, and release fight-or-flight hormones.”  While this response may have saved us from predators way back when, today they increase our stress hormones, which adversely affects our health.  Williams adds that studies on children and noise exposure show that “children with chronic aircraft, road traffic or rail noise exposure at school have poorer reading ability, memory, and academic performance on national standardised tests.”

The article is very interesting and one of the better mainstream media pieces on noise and its effect on human health.  Additionally, Williams touches on an important topic that gets very little attention.  Namely, Williams discusses the uneven impact of noise on disadvantaged communities:

You can probably guess which communities face the greatest sonic barrage: the same ones stuck with the worst air, the shoddiest housing, and so on. Noise as a social justice issue is just beginning to gain traction.

Click the first link to read the entire article.  It is well worth your time.

Link via @livequiet (Quiet Revolution).