Noise Pollution

Stressed New Yorkers file record helicopter noise complaints

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

Jose Martinez, The City, reports that helicopter complaints to 311 have soared with several thousand more reported through mid-November than were reported for all of 2019–7,758 complaints up to November 15, 2020, versus 4,400 for 2019. Martinez rightfully notes that the noise emanating from the helicopters make New Yorkers feel even worse, now that so many are cooped up in their homes. Martinez quotes one New York resident as saying the “noise just makes you crazy” and another saying that “I have wanted to run into the street screaming.” I want to stress that research has clearly demonstrated that noise is hazardous to mental and physical health–it is not “just annoying.” Rather, noise is detrimental to our well-being!

Martinez reports that Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney introduced a bill in the House to regulate helicopter noise, but we join in her frustration that there is no comparable bill in the Senate and  the Federal Aviation Administration has essentially ignored the problem. Let me add that the FAA has been negligent overall in curbing aviation noise, despite the growing body of evidence on the health hazards of noise.

New York City has regulations covering the city’s helicopter travel and the accompanying noises but neighboring states do not and their helicopters fly over our city. Martinez notes that Borough President Gale Brewer will be convening a task force next month to address tourist flights and has invited officials from New Jersey to join this task force. She will also explore helicopter use by the city’s police department and television stations. New York City had introduced legislation last July to amend the New York City’s administrative code to reduce noise by chartered helicopters, but it was put on hold due to the pandemic. I would hope that members of the City Council will be part of Ms. Brewer’s task force.

Considering the many hardships that New Yorkers are dealing with related to the COVID-19 pandemic, one might question why attention is being paid to the city’s helicopter noise problem. Let me point out again that noise serves to exacerbate the overall stress that we are now feeling. and this is definitely not good for our health.

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.

The Freakonomics podcast hones in on noise

Photo of Stephen Dubner by Audrey S. Bernstein, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coaliton

This new segment of the popular podcast “Freakonomics” hosted by Stephen Dubner was released on November 11. It features The Quiet Coalition’s own Dr. Arline Bronzaft as well as other researchers, including economist Dr. Josh Dean at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, behavioral ecologist Peter Tyack at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, Pawel and Margaret Jastreboff, emeritus medical researchers at Emory University, and Dr. Mack Hagood at Miami University in Ohio.

Dubner, co-author of the best-selling book “Freakonomics,” always focuses on fascinating anomalies, i.e., the unexpected impacts of human activities. In this episode he focuses on noise as what economists call an “externality”—a noxious byproduct that pollutes the environment for others but for which no one is held responsible.

Dubner interviews Dr. Bronzaft about her justly-famous work on the effects of train noise on kids’ performance in a New York City school. He interviews Dr. Tyack about his work with whales, whose lives—indeed their very survival—is impacted by the environmental externality of human-produced noise from underwater oil exploration, sonar, and ships’ engines.

Dubner then focuses on Dr. Dean’s work at the University of Chicago on the impacts of noise on human productivity, a little explored subject owing to the lack of official government interest in noise research in the U.S.

Take a listen.  This podcast is a fascinating hour-long program that does a wonderful job of exploring current research on noise!

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.

Sound and the healthy city

Image © Marcus Grant 2018

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This wonderful and thought-provoking editorial from Antonella Radicchi and colleagues appears in the special issue of Cities & Health about sound and the healthy city. Dr. Radicchi was the lead guest editor for this issue and the Quiet Coalition acts as special issue partner.

One of the many things I was reminded of reading the editorial is that although urban noise has serious and well-recognized health consequences, a broader perspective on the urban soundscape is needed.

Perhaps my single-minded focus on decibel levels is misplaced? After all, I like the sounds of birdsong or fountains or many street entertainers just as much as anyone else.

As Dr. Radicchi and her colleagues write:

We hope that through a soundscape approach we can encourage fresh thinking about urban sound, including how people perceive and relate to their sonic environments, and show how sound can contribute to health. We believe that this approach can provide a collaborative platform for sound artists, sound technologists, urbanists and local people to work together with public health and create healthier urban environments.

They certainly encouraged some fresh thinking and self reflection for me!

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.

Birds changed their tune during the Covid lockdown

Photo credit: Paul Knittel from Pexels

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

In several blogs I have written recently, I commented that the pandemic’s effect on the soundscape did not just impact humans but other species as well, e.g. birds, whales. A recent article on a study of birds in San Francisco found that birds started singing differently during the silence of the COVID-19 Lockdown, noting that male white-crowned sparrows in San Francisco have begun to sing more softly and with an improved vocal range. The article says this change in singing may make them “sexier to females.”

The article cites a paper that has studied how animals, including whales and birds, have changed their behaviors during the pandemic shutdown. Before the pandemic, cities characterized by loud noises, especially from traffic, forced birds to sing louder to be heard by other birds. The authors reached this finding by comparing birdsong data collected previous years at the same sites they collected data during April and May 2020. Their data allowed them to conclude that birds “can adapt to changing environments.”

Erik Stokstad, writing for Science, states that birdsong “recaptured its former glory,” referring to the white-crowned sparrows of San Francisco. He adds that when birds sing louder in noisy environments the stress created “can speed aging and disrupt their metabolisms.” With the noise also preventing birds from hearing their own chicks, there is the possibility that bird diversity is less in many cities. Furthermore, by demonstrating that some birds can adjust their songs to their environment, it might be that birds who could not adjust, and as a result left noisier cities, might return to places that are now quieter. But the quieter time of the pandemic has passed as cities have been returning to noisier times. Thus, the birds that have quieted down will very likely have to increase the volume of their songs. Also, may I add, that it is unlikely the birds who left will return.

Stokstad interviewed Elizabeth Danberry and her behavioral ecologists who have studied white-crowned sparrows in and around San Francisco for more than twenty years. Their research has clearly demonstrated the impact of noise pollution on the health and well-being of these sparrows. Similarly, long standing research has also clearly found that noise is hazardous to human hearing, health, and well-being. So I ask, how much more research do we need linking noise to adverse effects on humans and other species before we begin to lower decibel level in our environment?

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.

Noisy and dangerous helicopters assault NYC skies

This photo is in the public domain

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

Transportation noise has been recognized as a hazard to health and well-being. This includes noise from aircraft, including helicopters, as well as from nearby roads and rail. We, indeed, have the research that underscores the adverse impact of helicopter noise, as discussed in Julia Vitullo-Martin’s article in the Gotham Gazette, on residents who have to deal with “[t]he incessant low-flying air traffic tormenting parks and neighborhoods.”

While tourists view helicopter flights over New York City as fun and providing the opportunity to take some wonderful photographs, the people who live in areas over which the helicopters fly judge one of the frequent sightseeing companies, FlyNYON, as not only loud but dangerous. Vitullo-Martine writes that the company is known for “evading federal safety regulations by classifying its doors-off tours as photographic in purpose rather than for tourists.” With modern technology now allowing individuals to track helicopter flights, whether commuter or sightseeing, Vitullo-Martin reports that citizens have the data to establish that rules of flying are not always observed.

New Jersey residents, Vitullo-Martin notes, also complain about the intrusive helicopters, but the two states have not yet worked toward coming up with a solution to the noise problem.

One answer to resolve the issue of dangerous, noisy helicopters is through appropriate legislation at the city, state, and federal levels. Several New York City congresspeople have co-sponsored the Improving Helicopter Safety Act of 2019, which would “prohibit non-essential helicopters from flying in covered airspace of any city” with a very large population and a huge population density. This would definitely include New York City. But nothing is happening in Congress regarding this bill.

In New York City, legislation was introduced in July “to amend New York City’s administrative code to reduce noise by chartered helicopters.” I checked with one of the sponsors of the proposed bill and was told it was put on hold, largely due to all the attention being paid to the COVID-19 pandemic at this time.

Until any level of government is willing to act, New Yorkers will have to continue to live with the noisy and dangerous helicopters flying above their heads.

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 noise affects our brains

Image credit: Pete Linforth from Pixabay

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Everyone acquires information by different means. Some people talk to friends, some people do an internet search, some read newspapers or magazines, and these days many listen to podcasts.

I am too impatient to listen to podcasts–I can read much faster than anyone can talk–and I have hyperacusis, so I don’t listen to podcasts on my smartphone while walking around. I prefer to obtain information by reading.

But from time to time I make an exception, and this wonderful podcast is one of those exceptions.

On his “This Is Your Brain” podcast, Dr. Phil Steig interviews our friend Mathias Basner, MD, PhD, MSc, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Behavioral Regulation and Health Section. Dr. Basner is one of the world’s experts on the effects of noise on sleep and human health, and in this podcast he shares his knowledge about the effects of noise on hearing and the brain.

I listened on my computer. It’s only 19 minutes long, and 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.

NYC residents form task force against noise

Photo credit: Susan Sermoneta licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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

Concerned about the rise in noise in Inwood and Washington Heights, and supported by the largest number of noise-related complaints filed this year to 311 by the Manhattan community board that encompasses these neighborhoods, a group of residents formed a task force to address the noise in their community, e.g. street noises, residential noises, loud fireworks, and noisy vehicles. These two groups, named WAHI and Inwood for Respectful Decibel Levels, at their press conference, called on city agencies, elected public officials and their Community Board 12 members to support them in their efforts.

Over forty years ago, I had conducted study on the impact of elevated train noise on children’s classroom learning at their school in Inwood and found that the reading scores of children attending classes exposed to the train noise were significantly lower than children on the quiet side of the building. The results of this study were published in an academic journal but also shared with the community residents and their public officials. Working with the community and their elected officials, we were able to get the Transit Authority to lessen the noise on the tracks and the Board of Education to place sound absorbing materials in the noisy classrooms. A study following these two abatements found that children on both sides of the building were now reading at the same level.

Thus, it was not surprising that the Inwood/Washington Heights group would ask for my assistance to combat the noise they are now experiencing in their neighborhood. The fact that the community had played a role in lessening the noises at a district school earlier has given them confidence as they move forward to reduce the noise levels in their community today. The community also knows that today there is far more research demonstrating that noise is harmful to both our mental and physical health.

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 and air pollution may be preventable causes of dementia

Photo credit: Elina Krima from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Noise and air pollution may be preventable causes of dementia. This new study from the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, reported by Med Page Today, discusses risk factors contributing to dementia. Other than rare genetic conditions, most cases of dementia have multifactorial causation. This makes prevention difficult because multiple risk factors must be addressed.

In general, a healthier lifestyle, including not smoking, eating a Mediterranean style diet, daily exercise, and other similar behaviors, have been shown to reduce or delay the onset of dementia. The new study found that risk factors contributing to dementia include hearing loss, social isolation, depression, and air pollution. These factors have now also been added to the Lancet Commission’s list of key modifiable risk factors for dementia.

Although the study doesn’t mention noise explicitly, noise causes hearing loss. Hearing loss in turn is associated, likely causally, with social isolation. People who can’t understand what others are saying tend to avoid social interaction because it’s too stressful or too embarrassing not to understand what others are saying. Social isolation in turn leads to depression.

With regard to hearing loss, researchers think the loss of auditory input caused by hearing loss also causes changes in the brain that contribute to the development of dementia. Previous studies led by researchers from Johns Hopkins have shown that hearing impairment in people 45-65 years old is related to a progressive loss of nerve cells in brain structures and reduced microstructural integrity that may indicate early Alzheimer disease.

The precise mechanisms by which air pollution contributes to dementia are unclear, but there are strong correlations between levels of pollutants and dementia. Much if not most of urban air pollution comes from particulate matter emitted by internal combustion engines. These are also a major cause of urban noise.

Reducing noise will prevent hearing loss and its consequences. And if noise from vehicles and other engines is reduced, air pollution will also be reduced.

As we have been saying for some years now, a quieter world will be a healthier world for all.

And, one hopes, it will also be a world with less dementia.

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 returns to New York City

Photo credit: Chris Schippers from Pexels

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

When the pandemic hit New York City in full force in late March and then worked its way into April and May, city residents began to speak of a positive result of the lockdown—the city sounded quieter. There were far fewer construction sounds, car honks, and gatherings of people on corners. Instead of overhead jet blasts, people in Queens could hear birdsong. But the increased ambulance sirens were painful reminders that illness had befallen this city and cities around the world.

It is now August and the quiet has passed, according to this New York Magazine article by Justin Davidson. Davidson writes that New York City is getting loud again, and he welcomes the return of intrusive sounds because they indicate that people are now going back to work and construction and repairs of buildings are no longer on hold. Davidson believes the quiet that hovered over the city during lockdown wasn’t really pleasurable. The evening streets lacked sounds of laughter, music from nearby restaurants, and even disagreements between people passing by, Davidson writes, while acknowledging that there were loud sounds at 7:00 p.m. celebrating the wonderful hospital workers tending to the sick.

Now Davidson finds himself bothered by nearby generators and its pulsations, which he says are “nudging my heartbeat to accelerate, like an IV drip of bad news.” His article cites research that demonstrates that such noise can affect mental and physical well-being, and notes, citing Emily Thompson’s “The Soundscape of Modernity,” that noise was one of the outcomes of urbanization. Yet, he found that when he visited a rural area, he encountered a number of noises in that environment as well.

This article also presents the opinion of critic Kate Wagner, which appeared in The Atlantic, who believes responses to sound speak to our social and political views in that fights over noise may be fights over “power and control.” Newcomers to certain quieter communities may advocate for more night life in the area while others moving into the city from the suburbs want a quieter town. Wagner, according to Davidson, believes that attempts to “shush” a city amounts to the “imposition of suburban values on an urban context.”

Davidson concludes his article by aching for the return of the sounds that characterized New York City before the pandemic. Then, he says, we will know that the city has “healed.”

While I, too, want to hear the wonderful sounds of the city again—children laughing, baseball fans shouting, and sounds of crowds leaving theaters and waiting for autographs of their favorite actors—I also believe that we should continue to advocate for the lessening of the din, e.g. lower construction tool sounds, less car honking, and the like.

A less noisy New York City will still be an exciting, vibrant city and a healthier one as well.

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.

Lockdowns drastically reduced seismic noise

Photo credit: Hrag Vartanian licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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

How ironic that a pandemic that devastated the health and well-being of millions of people worldwide resulted in an opportunity to conduct research to monitor the earth’s movements in ways that may provide information to protect the earth and its inhabitants from here on.

New research from the Royal Observatory of Belgium, the Imperial College London, and other institutions has found that dampening of seismic noise caused by humans, especially in more densely populated areas, has dropped by as much as 50% in some places, allowing researchers to listen in to “previously concealed earthquake signals.” The quiet time brought on by the pandemic was the longest time that “human-caused seismic noise” had been lessened since researchers had been monitoring the earth’s sounds. Now that researchers were able to tune in to the natural sounds of the earth, they believe the information provided by these sounds will enable them to gain a greater understanding of potential earthquakes and volcanoes.

To those of us who have advocated for less noise and greater quiet in our environment, largely based on the growing body of literature that has demonstrated the adverse impact of noise on mental and physical health, we welcome these new studies that provide us with another avenue of research to support our efforts.

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.