Noise Pollution

Better Hearing Month 2017 and the problem of noise

By David Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Every year since 1927, May has been designated “Better Hearing Month.” What better time to think about what threatens your hearing health? In fact, if you already have some hearing loss you’re one of about 48 million Americans—that’s many more than all of the people with cancer or diabetes combined.

That’s a big number, and yet hearing loss—specifically noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL)–has been overlooked and underfunded for three and a half decades.

Noise is such a simple word–why is it so complex and laden with jargon and specialists who don’t talk to one another? One group is solely concerned with how to measure it (physicists). Other groups focus on specific types and sources of noise, such as jet aircraft, or alarmed medical devices, or leaf blowers, or trains, or highway noise (engineers or advocacy groups). Others concentrate on the effects of noise on humans (doctors and public health researchers), while another group ponders how noise affects organisms other than humans, including plants, birds and other animal species, including those that live underwater (biologists). Still other groups think about how to mitigate noise (architects and designers).

The problem is that over the past three and a half decades, the subject of noise and it’s effects have been systematically ignored and underfunded by Congress and the White House. As a result, “noise”–the cause of NIHL–has become a bewilderingly fragmented field in which few people talk to others outside their own specialities. This has resulted in a subject that is hard to understand and laden with technical jargon. What is “noise”? Why does it matter? Who cares? Has the science progressed? If so, how and where?

But recently that has begun to change thanks to advances in research and to changes in federal policies from several federal agencies that have not traditionally been involved in noise and noise control. These include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NASA, the Department of Health and Humans Services, the Department of Interior, the General Services Administration, the Joint Commission, and others.

In each case, a specific federal department has bitten off a chunk of the noise problem and developed guidelines and programs to fit their own needs. But put all of these disparate pieces together and you will find examples of real progress despite the fragmentation.

To help build general understanding, we ar the The Quiet Coalition have assembled some of these fragments into a diagram or a “Road Map” of noise effects (see chart above) organized by the way they are studied within various specialized fields. We hope this Road Map helps others see the big picture.

In addition to the Road Map, we have also assembled the basic facts about noise into a simple one-page “Fact Sheet” that provides detailed references to scientific literature. Both the Fact Sheet and the Road Map are starting points. At The Quiet Coalition, our goal is to synthesize the underlying scientific research on this complex and fragmented subject into a coherent picture so that we can collectively find ways to talk about it. We hope you find both the Fact Sheet and the Road Map useful as you think about hearing, hearing loss, and that elusive problem, noise.

The underlying question for each of us should be: how can we work together?

David Sykes chairs/co-chairs four national professional groups in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, ANSI S12 WG44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group. He is also a board member of the American Tinnitus Association, co-founder of the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), and a contributor to “Technology for a Quieter America” (2011, National Academy of Engineering). 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.

Reducing noise can improve your mental and physical health

Photo credit: Quiet City Maps

Dr. Arline Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist and noted noise activist in New York City and beyond, has written an article on the effects of noise on hearing, physical, and mental health.  She notes that, “[o]ne loud blast of sound near the ear may cause permanent damage, but it is the continuous exposure to loud sounds over time that reduces hearing ability,” and laments the increase in hearing loss among young people.

So what can you do to reduce your exposure to noise?  Dr. Bronzaft has the answer:

Diners can ask restaurant personnel to lower loud music, and owners can get information about acoustical treatments that can lessen the decibel levels in their establishments. Residents can let managing agents and landlords know they are entitled to quiet in their apartments under the “warranty of habitability” clause of leases. Local public officials and community board leaders should be enlisted in abating the noises in neighborhoods. Readers can go to www.growNYC.org/noise for more information on the hazards of noise and how to reduce the noise in their lives.

Click the first link to read the entire piece.  It’s worth your time.

 

 

 

Massachusetts Medical Society: No to noisy leaf blowers

Photo credit: Hector Alejandro licensed under CC by 2.0

By Jamie L. Banks, PhD, MSc, Program Director, The Quiet Coalition

Are health concerns about gas-powered leaf blowers (GLBs) gaining momentum? On April 29th, the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) became the second in the nation to approve a resolution against GLBs, following the lead of the Medical Society of the State of New York (MSSNY). Other physician groups, such as Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment and Fresno Madera Medical Society, have also issued warnings on the use of GLBs and other fuel-powered lawn and garden equipment. The resolution brought by the society’s Committee on Environmental and Occupational Health and its chair Heather Alker, MD, MPH, recommends that the MMS:

  • Recognize noise pollution as a public health hazard, with respect to hearing loss;
  • Support initiatives to increase awareness of the health risks of loud noise exposure;
  • Urge the maximum feasible reduction of all forms of air pollution, including particulates, gases, toxicants, irritants, smog formers, and other biologically and chemically active pollutants; and
  • Acknowledge the increased risk of adverse health consequences to workers and general public from gas-powered leaf blowers including hearing loss and cardiopulmonary disease.

The growing concern on the part of the medical community over leaf blower noise is welcome news. Commercial GLBs can produce noise of 95 decibels and higher at the ear of the operator. This noise level exceeds safe occupational levels by an order of magnitude. The close proximity use of these powerful engines exposes both workers and others in the area to prolonged periods of excessive noise, not to mention toxic air pollutants. The presence of a low frequency component in the leaf blower’s frequency band distribution (i.e., the device’s sound signature) enables it to travel over long distances and through walls and windows.

The MMS resolution notes the harms to hearing and health from excessive noise produced by GLBs. Loud noise is known to cause hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis, as well as other health problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease. In addition, loud noise has negative effects on quality of life, communication and social interaction, work productivity, and psychological well-being.

The burgeoning use of GLBs and other fossil fuel powered equipment around our homes, schools, and other public spaces is a public health hazard, and a growing number of physicians and other health professionals are becoming concerned. The moves made by MMS and MSSNY are to be lauded, and other state societies and medical groups, including the American Lung Association and American Heart Association, need to prioritize this issue.  With the body of scientific evidence on the harms associated with noise and pollution, other state and national medical societies have a critical role to play in educating government officials and the public about the connections between environmental hazards and disease and the actions we can take to reduce risks in our communities.

Jamie L. Banks, PhD, MSc, is the Executive Director of Quiet Communities, Inc. and the Program Director of The Quiet Coalition. She is an environmentalist and health care scientist dedicated to promoting clean, healthy, quiet, and sustainable landscape maintenance, construction, and agricultural practices. Dr. Banks has an extensive background in health outcomes and economics, environmental behavior, and policy.

Source: Quiet Communities

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

Who should get their hearing checked? Everyone!

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This local television anchor recommends that everyone get his or her hearing checked.

But this isn’t what the experts at the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommend. They reviewed the published medical literature on screening for hearing loss and concluded that, based on the literature, there is no proven benefit to screening for hearing loss in adults. People who complain of not being able to hear should be checked, they cautioned, but they found no benefit in looking for hearing loss is those who don’t have an obvious problem.

Maybe it’s time to rethink that recommendation. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Vital Signs: Noise-Induced Hearing Loss Among Adults, found the following based on recent data from the National Health and Nutrition Survey:

Results: Nearly one in four adults (24%) had audiometric notches, suggesting a high prevalence of noise-induced hearing loss. The prevalence of notches was higher among males. Almost one in four U.S. adults who reported excellent or good hearing had audiometric notches (5.5% bilateral and 18.0% unilateral). Among participants who reported exposure to loud noise at work, almost one third had a notch.

Conclusions and Implications for Public Health Practice: Noise-induced hearing loss is a signficant, often unrecognized health problem among U.S. adults. Discussions between patients and personal health care providers about hearing loss symptoms, tests, and ways to protect hearing might help with early diagnosis of hearing loss and provide opportunities to prevent harmful noise exposures. Avoiding prolonged exposure to loud environments and using personal hearing protection devices can prevent noise-induced hearing loss.

Audiometric notch is the hallmark of noise induced hearing loss.

The CDC information that a quarter of American adults have hearing loss but don’t know it–including those who rate their hearing as good or excellent–indicates a major problem. Experts recommend checking blood pressure at every doctor visit and cholesterol at varying intervals, depending on risk factors, beginning in childhood. Screening for auditory disorders is recommended for children but not for adults. But hearing loss is like high blood pressure or high cholesterol–it is painless and asymptomatic, and unless someone checks, the patient doesn’t know that he or she has it.

Why does this matter? Most Americans, including most doctors and audiologists, don’t know that the only safe noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss is only 70 decibels time weighted average for 24 hours with the real safe noise exposure level probably even lower than that. Most Americans don’t know that we are exposed to dangerous levels of noise every day, which probably explains the recent CDC findings. If people know that they have hearing loss, perhaps they will do more to protect their ears.

Significant hearing loss with age is probably not part of normal physiological aging, but represents noise-induced hearing loss. (I will be presenting a paper on that topic at the 12th Congress of the International Commission on the Biological Effects of Noise.)  Regular hearing testing could prevent current and future generations from losing their hearing.  Why? Because noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable, and regular tests would let people know whether and to what degree their hearing is compromised, allowing–and encouraging–them to take action today to avoid significant hearing loss tomorrow.¹

Take the initiative with regard to your hearing health, and have your hearing tested regularly as part of a preventive health plan.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area.  He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and 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.

¹ For those who are concerned about establishing the diagnosis of hearing loss as a pre-existing condition which might increase their insurance rates or exclude coverage for future hearing health care, they should not be worried for two reasons: (1) Medicare and Medicaid don’t have a pre-existing condition exclusion, and (2) federal and commercial insurance plans do not cover audiology services and hearing aids. Which is more important? Not establishing a pre-existing condition for something not covered by insurance, or finding out that your hearing is already being damaged and having the chance to take steps to protect your ears?

Want to be a citizen scientist?

HUSH CITY app Icon: ©️ ANTONELLA RADICCHI 2017

Antonella Radicchi is a registered architect with a PhD in Urban Design and a soundscape researcher.  She is currently an IPODI-Marie Curie Fellow working on her post doc project “Beyond the Noise: Open Source Soundscapes” at the Technical University Berlin. As part of her project, she has developed HUSH CITY app, a free mobile app designed to crowdsource data “related to ‘everyday quiet areas.'”

Radicchi is concerned about how cities have become increasing noisier, noting that in Europe “over 125 million people are affected by noise pollution from traffic every year.” “Quietness,”she laments, “is becoming a luxury available only for the elites.” In order to protect and plan quiet areas, Radicchi’s project applies “the soundscape approach, the citizen science paradigm and open source technology, with the ultimate goal of making quietness as a commons.”

Radicchi is currently working on a pilot study in the Reuterkiez, “a Berlin neighborhood affected by environmental injustice and noise pollution,” using crowdsourced data to target “everyday quiet areas” by using the HUSH CITY app, interviews, and group soundwalks. And she is inviting people to be “an active part of a citizen science research project to map and evaluate quietness in cities” by downloading and using the app. The information that is gathered will be use to generate an “Everyday Quiet Areas Atlas,” a “virtual, open, interactive and multi-layered map,” and “a digital report on how to protect existing ‘everyday quiet areas’ and planning new ones.”

Ah, but I don’t live or work in Berlin, you may be thinking. Not a problem, as you don’t have to be in Berlin to participate. You can identify “everyday quiet areas” in your neck of the woods because HUSH CITY app can be used wherever you are.  If you want to join others to identify, preserve, and create quiet spaces in your community, here’s how to do it:

  • Download the Hush City app–it’s free!
  • Go to one of your favorite quiet spots
  • Record the sound where you are in the quiet spot
  • Take a picture of the spot where you recorded the sound
  • Answer the questionnaire about this quiet spot
  • Share this information with your community.

You can download HUSH CITY app at the iTunes Store or Google Play. And for those of you who wonder what happens to the data that is collected–and you should for every app you download–Radicchi states that “all data collected will be stored and shared anonymously and in respect of privacy issues.” You can contact Radicchi directly via @firenzesoundmap or @HUSHCITYapp.

 

National Parks: Why quiet matters

By David Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

On May 4, Science and Phys.org™ published news reports about a recent, significant, multi-year study about the pervasiveness of noise pollution in 492 national parks and natural areas across the U.S.

In “Noise Pollution is invading even the most protected natural areas,” Science writer Ula Chrobak notes that:

The great outdoors is becoming a lot less peaceful. Noise pollution from humans has doubled sound levels in more than half of all protected areas in the United States—from local nature reserves to national parks—and it has made some places 10 times louder, according to a new study. And the cacophony isn’t just bad for animals using natural sounds to hunt and forage—it could also be detrimental to human health.

Under the study, researchers from the National Park Service and Colorado State University “recorded noise at 492 sites across the country with varying levels of protection, [and] used the recordings to predict noise throughout protected areas in the rest of the country.” They also estimated naturally occurring ambient noise and compared the noise levels with and without humanmade noise. The results were damning: noise pollution doubled sound levels in 63% of protected areas and caused a 10-fold increase in 21% of protected areas.

And the impacts of that noise pollution affect all living things withing these areas.  Phys.org reports interviews Rachel Buxton, the study’s lead author and post-doctoral researcher, who states that “[t]he noise levels we found can be harmful to visitor experiences in these areas, and can be harmful to human health, and to wildlife.” The noise pollution findings means that “noise reduced the area that natural sounds can be heard by 50 to 90 percent,” which “also means that what could be heard at 100 feet away could only be heard from 10 to 50 feet.”

So what is the impact on humans and wildlife?  Phys.org explains:

This reduced capacity to hear natural sound reduces the restorative properties of spending time in nature, such as mood enhancement and stress reduction, interfering with the enjoyment typically experienced by park visitors. Noise pollution also negatively impacts wildlife by distracting or scaring animals, and can result in changes in species composition.

High levels of noise pollution were also found in critical habitat for endangered species, namely in endangered plant and insect habitats. “Although plants can’t hear, many animals that disperse seeds or pollinate flowers can hear, and are known to be affected by noise, resulting in indirect impacts on plants,” said Buxton.

The study results have been widely reported, showing that there is real interest in protecting our national parks and natural areas.  Researchers know that “many people don’t really think of noise pollution as pollution,” but they hope that this study will encourage more people to “consider sound as a component of the natural environment.”

The National Park Service’s huge portfolio of parks and natural areas provides a huge canvas for researchers concerned about the impacts of “noise pollution.” You may be surprised to learn that the National Park Service has a research division called “Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division” that has been looking for several years at the effects of noise not only on visitor experiences, but also on plants and animals. Their work is fascinating and resulted in a 2014 report from the National Academy of Engineering called “Preserving National Park Soundscapes.

David Sykes chairs/co-chairs four national professional groups in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, ANSI S12 WG44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group. He is also a board member of the American Tinnitus Association, co-founder of the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), and a contributor to “Technology for a Quieter America” (2011, National Academy of Engineering). 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.

The danger of noisy oceans

Photo credit: Samuel Blanc licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

We have posted before about how ocean noise is causing damage to various species of whales, so it should be no surprise to hear that human noise has thoroughly invaded our oceans. The Islands’ Sounder spoke to Christopher Clark, a bioacoustic engineer who he studies biology and acoustics, who discusses how “ambient noise from ships” interfered with his research on whales. Clark said that “[w]hat was eerie was that he could hear [ships’] rumble, but the ships were so far away they might as well have been invisible.” “North Atlantic right whales, like the Southern resident Orcas, are endangered,” adds Clark, who “suspects noise is a contributing factor for both species.” “You can’t listen to the ocean for any length of time without encountering human noise,” he laments.

The damage is not limited to whales, as ocean noise is damaging other species. Matt Soergel,The Florida Times-Union, reporting on research on dolphins in the St. Johns River, writes that researchers were surprised to find that “there’s no place [in the area they studied] immune to man-made sound,” and they are not sure why.  As for the effect on dolphins, the researchers aren’t quite sure, but “dolphins, especially in the murky tannin waters of the St. Johns, rely on sound to communicate and to hunt,” and the St. Johns’ dolphins have shown a decline in health.

And seals are suffering too, as researchers from the University of St. Andrews have discovered that “[s]eals may experience hearing loss from underwater vessel noise.” Although the researchers have said that there was “no evidence that seals were exposed to noise levels high enough to cause permanent hearing damage,” lead author Dr. Esther Jones added that “[u]rbanisation of the marine environment is inevitably going to continue, so chronic ocean noise should be incorporated explicitly into marine spatial planning and management plans for existing marine protected areas.”

Noise is not just a nuisance, it’s a public health issue for all species on this planet.

 

 

 

Concern about noise is universal

Photo credit: Eldan Goldenberg licensed under CC BY 2.0

The American Speech-Language Hearing Association conducted a survey of 1,007 Americans that found that adults of all ages are concerned about long-term effects of loud noises. Specifically, adults are concerned “about what loud noises may be doing to affect their ability to hear as they get older.”  Oddly, the survey also found that “young adults still like to see sports stadiums and restaurants designed to be noisy,” even as “18- to 29-year olds reported the highest level of dissatisfaction with noise levels in public places like bars, restaurants, even movie theaters.”

ASHA conducted the survey to “understand how US adults feel about noisy environments and how they affect their out of home entertainment decisions,” and is using the results to support its efforts around Better Hearing and Speech Month. You can access the survey results and executive summary by clicking this link (pdf).

What can you do about noisy neighbors?

Photo credit: Denise Cheng licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Derby Telegraph offers some guidance for dealing with the neighbor in love with his leaf blower or outdoor audio system. While some of the suggestions may not translate well–the Derby Telegraph is a UK newspaper–some will. Namely, the first suggestion is dead on, unless, that is, you have reason to know that your neighbor is unstable or obnoxious on purpose:

[T]he first thing you should always do is speak to the person causing the noise. Most of the time they don’t realise they are causing a nuisance and are usually happy to change what they are doing.

If reason does not prevail, the article provides a link to the Derby City Council website and walks the reader through the process of filing a noise complaint online. We have some catching up to do in the U.S., but there are communities with mechanisms to complain about noise, like New York City’s 311 system. But if there isn’t a reasonable way to file a complaint where you live, find out who represents your ward or neighborhood and ask him or her to propose one. There should be a process to address noise and other complaints that comes between constituents seething in impotent rage and calling the cops as a first measure.

And we don’t know about you, but we learned one very interesting fact from this article: Germany has “strict ‘quiet hours’…between 8pm and 7am and all day Sundays and holidays.” Then again, we shouldn’t be surprised, as “Germany’s love of silence led to the first earplug.”

Mallgoers would rather deal with pigeon poop than noise

Photo credit: Fritz Park licensed under CC BY 2.0

Mary Beth Quirk, the Consumerist, reports that “shoppers at one New York mall would rather risk getting hit by bird droppings than listen to the sounds coming out of the complex’s speakers.”  Apparently officials at the Rego Center Mall in Queens, New York City, installed a sound system “that blast[ed] noisy bird calls every 30 seconds or so,” to deal with an infestation of pigeons that were nesting and defecating near one of the mall entrances. But the law of unintended consequences prevailed, as the noise got on many shoppers’ last nerve.  One shopper, who claimed that he had “been pooped on previously at the mall,” said that he preferred “the risk of falling feces to the noise coming out of the mall speakers.”