Noise Pollution

Military jets are damaging the quietest region in the U.S.

Photo credit: AvgeekJoe licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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

The Olympic National Park in Washington State is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it welcomes more than three million visitors a year to enjoy what Gordon Hempton has identified as “One Square Inch of Silence.” Today this “quietest place in US” is being overwhelmed with military aircraft noise according to a study published by Lauren Kuehne and Julian Olden. Diane Urbani de la Paz, Peninsula Daily News, reports that Kuehne and Olden monitored military flights over three sites in the park which included the “most quiet rainforest and region in the U.S.” and found that at times the sound levels “registered at 80 decibels or more.” Olden believes that this deafening noise will adversely affect the wildlife of the park and deter people from visiting this park.

Concerned that the quiet soundscape of the Olympic Peninsula is being overwhelmed by noise, Kuehne informed me that she shared the data of her study with the Navy, hoping that the Navy would consider moving its aircraft training away from the Olympic Peninsula and to a region that would not adversely affect people or quiet parks with overhead aircraft noise. I responded that studies such as hers will put greater pressure on the military and the airline industry in general to explore ways to lessen the impacts of aircraft noise.

Kuehne also told me that she is working with Gordon Hempton, co-founder of Quiet Parks International, an organization dedicated to preserving quiet which, of course, includes protecting our national parks. I, too, am part of Hempton’s organization, serving as an advisor, and urge readers to advocate for the protection of our beautiful, quiet national parks.

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 Soundproofist podcast looks at leaf blower noise

Photo credit: Timothy Valentine licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Two Quiet Coalition co-founders, Jamie Banks, MS, PhD, and David M. Sykes, are currently featured on the most recent Soundproofist podcast. The podcast focuses on leaf blower noise and what can be done about it. Listen here:

Meanwhile The Quiet Coalition’s Dr. Arline Bronzaft was featured recently on the Freakonomics radio show and podcast, which you can listen to here:

The Quiet Coalition is thrilled to be reaching new listeners.

How human-made noise affects animals

Photo credit: Matthis Volquardsen from Pexels

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

As I have written in previous posts, human-made noises have not only adversely affected the health and well being of people, but these noises also affect the well being of many species with whom we share this planet. Human-made noise forces the increased volume of urban bird calls, resulting in stress to some species, and deep-sea mining interests may have disrupted the lives of sea creatures for many years to come.

In her article for Psychology Today, Mary Bates informs us that noise pollution may hamper the communication of animals, “from insects to frogs to birds,” and this may have “potential consequences for mate attraction, territory defense and parent-offspring communication.” In support, she cites a new paper that reported the findings of a large number of studies that examined the impact of “anthropogenic noise,” or noise pollution, on animal communication. These studies found that animals had to make adjustments as a result of noise intrusions, and such adjustments could intrude on their existence. For example, when females had to call louder to attract males, these louder calls also attracted more predators, endangering the very lives of these animals.

The authors of the paper, Hansjoerg Kunc, Queen’s University Belfast, and his colleague Rouven Schmidt, conclude that it is essential for us to track noise pollution because the knowledge gained in such tracking will “ultimately determine the health of both ecosystems and organisms, including humans.” By including humans in this warning, they are cautioning us to protect our natural soundscapes not only to protect other species but ourselves 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.

Orlando announces first vertiport for air taxis

Photo credit: Lilium

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

Here they come, ready or not: Get used to the words “vertiport” and “air taxi,” because it’s happening faster than many thought. The FAA Re-Authorization Act, signed into law in October 2018 included five provisos we welcomed that address the airport and aircraft noise issue. But the same Act also approved what aircraft futurists wanted: accelerated development of both drone deliveries–backed by Amazon and Google–and what we used to call “AirUber,” i.e., mostly electrically-powered, small, vertical-takeoff air taxis known technically as  electric vertical take off and landing vehicles, or eVOTLs. In the end, aircraft may get quieter, but there are going to be lot more of them buzzing around.

Andrew J. Hawkins, writing in The Verge, describes a deal between the Orlando city council and the richly funded German start-up company Lilium, which has launched and begun testing its 5-passenger eVOTL. Clearly, there’s a long way to go, and as Hawkins points out there are at least 100 companies actively competing in this exciting new eVOTL space. But the vast majority of these companies are in Europe and China, not the U.S. Why? Because the FAA has been busy protecting Boeing’s back and preventing development of these next-gen aircraft here.

No Matter. Let the Europeans and Chinese get a head start building quiet, electric or hydrogen aircraft. The greatest driver of innovation in the U.S. has always been outside competition—other people beating us at the innovation game. The first computers were built and used in the UK. The first airplanes and rockets were used in warfare by Germany. The first satellite was launched by Russia. So if the world is going to get quiet, non-petro-fueled next-gen aircraft, others will get there first. It’s an old story. But this time, we need Congress and a well-organized, national constituency to stand up and demand that drone makers and eVOTL companies like Lilium explicitly address the noise problem. Otherwise, we may hear them flying over our houses and backyards. We need a say in the process before they land on these shores. That’s what the National Quiet Skies Coalition and the 50 members of the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus are supposed to be doing.

We need to push them. Now. Get ready.

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.

London commuters dread Tube noise

Photo credit: Leon Warnking from Pexels

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

After my studies on the adverse impact of elevated train noise children’s classroom learning in a school in Upper Manhattan were published, the New York City Transit Authority became more involved in seeking out ways to reduce rail noise. I was asked to be a consultant to the Transit Authority in this undertaking. As I studied the rail noise in greater depth, I learned that rail noise could indeed be reduced, e.g. welded rail, rubber rail seats between rail and tracks, wheel truing, and track lubrication. What I also learned is the relationship between noise and proper maintenance of the system. To run a system with fewer breakdowns and disruptions, it is wise to keep the system properly maintained and noise should be viewed as a clue to potential breakdowns. Thus, keep the wheels trued and the tracks lubricated.

Now forty-five years after the publication of my first study on transit noise and learning, I read that Transport for London is being confronted by riders who say that the one aspect of their journeys on the Tubes that they dread is the noise. In April Curtin’s article for MyLondon, we learn that a research project recorded sound levels exceeding 105 decibels–that’s extremely high–on some of the journeys. As discussed in my earlier writings, this article notes that the rail squeak that passengers are complaining about causes damage to the tracks and trains. Not surprisingly, we are told, this adds to the maintenance bill.

In response to the noise complaints, Transport for London says it is carrying out regular maintenance work and “investing in new technologies to reduce noise on the Underground.” As the co-author of the book “Why Noise Matters,” written with four British co-authors, and as an individual who has examined transit noise for so many years, I offer my assistance to Transport for London as they explore ways to reduce rail noise.

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.

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.