Noise

What is a safe noise exposure level for the public?

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

What is a safe noise exposure level for the public?

That seems like an easy question, but the answer wasn’t obvious in 2014 when I became a noise activist, trying to make the world a quieter place. My interest was in preventing auditory disorders. (I’ve since learned that noise has non-auditory health effects, too, at lower noise levels, but my focus always is on auditory health.)

The internet didn’t help much. Most links found used the 85 decibel (dB) standard, because the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders stated, and still states, that “[l]ong or repeated exposure to sound at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss.” This didn’t seem right to me, because I have hyperacusis and sound levels much over 75 dB hurt my ears.

It took me a year to learn that the 85 dB standard comes from the NIOSH noise criteria (pdf) and isn’t a safe noise level for the public, and not for workers, either.

Now, when one searches for “safe noise level” or “safe noise level for the public,” the overwhelming majority of links cite my several publications on this topic. As I have written, the only evidence-based safe noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss is a time-weighted average of 70 dB for 24 hours, but for a variety of reasons the real safe exposure level has to be lower.

The 85 dB standard lives on, zombie-like, refusing to die, but at least accurate information about the safe noise level to prevent hearing loss is now widely accessible.

I hope accurate information about safe noise levels will empower the public to demand quiet, before we all lose our hearing.

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.

On being silent in a noisy world

Photo credit: Robert Aakerman

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I thought that Gal Beckerman’s essay, “The Case for Covering Your Ears in Noisy Times,” would be about the medical and scientific evidence for using hearing protection devices to prevent noise-induced hearing loss. But fortunately I was wrong. The wonderful essay and book review in the New York Times discusses the importance of being silent and of hearing silence in a noisy world.

Not speaking is part of many meditative religious and philosophical traditions, as is enforced silence.

But me? I’m not so extreme.  All I want is a little more quiet!

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

The ugly truth about delivery drones

Photo credit: Sam Churchill licensed under CC BY 2.0

We have written about why we think wide scale use of delivery drones will not happen here, here, here, and here.  And now we have to repeat ourselves, as we share a recent report by Mariella Moon, Engadget, about how Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, can’t unleash its delivery drones onto the world until it remedies “one of the biggest complaints about it first.” The complaint, of course, is that the drones are noisy.  Moon writes that people who live “directly under the drones’ path in rural Australia where they’re current being tested described the sound they make as ‘chainsaw gone ballistic.'”

Really? Surely a small drone can’t be that horrible? Except it’s not just one drone, it’s a fleet of drones, and yes, it is horrible. Moon writes:

Apparently, the machines create so much noise that people don’t even use their yards anymore. In addition, dog owners are avoiding areas where they pass, because the drones make their dogs nervous. Not to mention, the noise could trigger PTSD symptoms in military veterans.

So Wing is going to try to make a quieter drone. In the meantime, it is slowing down the drones and trying to vary the flight paths so that they don’t continue to enrage the poor souls who live near their testing facility. Fortunately for the rest of us, Moon notes that “it’s going to take a while” before Wing can design that mythical quiet drone.

Meanwhile we wonder what compelling need is being served by drone delivery. Sure, being able to deliver life saving medicine to a remote location would be fabulous, but let’s be realistic, most drones are going to deliver consumer goods or fast food and the drones are meant to reduce human labor costs and encourage impulse buying. That is, there is no compelling need. It’s all just a lot of noise.

 

The sound of silence

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Penelope Green, The New York Times, writes about using a sound machine to mask nighttime noise for better sleep. In her article she cites a definition of noise that I like and will probably use it again. “Noise,” writes Green, “is defined as unwanted sounds that could have negative psychological and physiological effects.

Green discusses using white noise to mask unwanted sounds that might disrupt sleep. But while that might help with sleep, it’s not clear that white noise is without health consequences itself.

Humans and our primate and vertebrate ancestors evolved in quiet. As Green notes, the perception of sound is a warning mechanism. It allowed us to detect predators or a hungry baby.

I have measured nighttime noise levels near 30 A-weighted decibels (dBA) in remote areas of Wales and Sri Lanka. (A-weighting adjusts measured sound for the frequencies heard in human speech.) That’s at the low end of the noise range from 30-35 dBA where sounds begin to disrupt sleep.

Sadly, it’s impossible to avoid nighttime noise in urban settings, but, as mentioned in the article, even natural sounds from frogs and other animals in rural settings can disturb the listener. Which is unfortunate, because achieving quiet to allow sleep, rather than relying on sound masking devices or apps, is probably better for our health.

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.

Help for those bothered by airplane noise

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article in the Los Angeles Times describes a new tool, the Airnoise button, developed to help people report airplane noise. Airplane noise has always been a problem, but airplane noise has been exacerbated by the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen program, which uses satellite navigation to guide airplanes on more precise approach paths to their destinations. NextGen increases fuel efficiency and allows closer spacing of planes, but it also concentrates airplane noise over smaller areas. The complaints about the NextGen noise problem has been covered in these pages and in many newspaper reports from around the country.

Due to a phenomenon called “regulatory capture,” the FAA appears more concerned about the profits of the airplane manufacturers, airline companies, and airports than about the health and well-being of the Americans under the flight paths. And the FAA believes airplane noise is “just a nuisance,” even though it has been shown to be a risk factor for hypertension, heart attack, stroke, and death.

One of the things government officials say when confronted about a problem is that “nobody ever complained.” But people are complaining about airplane noise, so the FAA’s response, as noted in the Los Angeles Times article, has been to attribute a large number of complaints to a handful of people. And the FAA might have a point, but the agency fails to acknowledge that their cumbersome procedures make it difficult for people to complain. After all, most people have more important things to do in their busy lives than to hunt down the right online form and file a complaint every time a plane flies over their house.

But the FAA may have to come up with a different excuse soon, as Airnoise makes it simple and easy to file airplane noise complaints–just one simple click of the Airnoise proprietary button, or a click on the Airnoise smartphone app, and your complaint is on its way.

I hope all affected by aircraft noise will use Airnoise to file complaints, so that the FAA and congressional committees that govern and fund them can no longer pretend that only a handful of people are concerned about aviation noise.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Hearing noise? Here’s how to find out where it’s coming from

Photo credit: bruce mars from Pexels

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

The Quiet Coalition recently received an inquiry from a woman who said she hears “a nearly imperceptible high-pitched sound” in her living space. She states that she can hear the sound, but her partner insists there is no sound. “Could a smartphone-based sound-meter app isolate and identify this sound?” she asked, adding “if so, which one do you recommend?”

First, I must note that the fact that this woman hears noise but her partner does not means nothing at all. Her partner could simply have much less sensitive hearing!

We at The Quiet Coalition agree that the best step is to try to measure the sound. There are free or inexpensive sound meter apps that you can install on your smartphone, so start there. Some are better than others, but thankfully, experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have tested and rated smartphone sound-meter apps, which we reported on last year.

But a smartphone app may not be sensitive enough to pick up the sound. What should you do if this is the case? The only alternative could be to find an acoustics engineer to visit your residence and use professional equipment to identify the noise and then help you identify the source. That person can also suggest some ways to address the problem—which could be a neighbor’s electronics. The National Council of Acoustical Consultants offers advice on how to select a professional, licensed acoustical engineer.

There is, however, another possibility that must be considered: hearing a high-pitched sound that no one else hears COULD mean that you have a hearing disorder called tinnitus or an acute sensitivity to sounds called hyperacusis. Tinnitus can be identified by first finding a truly quiet place, such as a library, or on a weekend retreat in the countryside, to see if you still hear the noise when you are away from the circumstances where you are aware of the sound.

40 million Americans have tinnitus (myself included), so it’s quite common. And many of us spent years assuming that the “background noises” we heard were actually coming from the environment and that everybody heard the same thing!

So we recommend that you pursue both of these steps, because exposure to noise can be stressful, can cause sleep loss, and can have other health effects.
First try to determine where an unseen source of high-pitched sound in your environment is coming from. If the sound cannot be isolated, then consider that the cause of the sound could be tinnitus or another hearing disorder that should be attended to.

Frankly, the best result would be that there really is an unseen source of high-pitched sound in the immediate environment. Why? Because that can be fixed once the source is identified. But tinnitus cannot be cured, though there are techniques for managing it—which include avoiding the kinds of exposures that may have caused it in the first place. And know that the onset of tinnitus can be quite sudden.

To learn more about tinnitus check out the American Tinnitus Association‘s website and the Clinical Practice Guideline for Tinnitus published in 2014 by the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery.

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

Embracing stillness

NBC Left Field interviews Steve Orfield, owner/operator of an anechoic chamber that the Guinness Book of World Records once named as “the quietest place on earth.”  Orfield talks about the importance of silence, noting that “the more perceptual stimulus you have, the less you are able to think clearly.” In the end, Orfield observes that we spend most of our energy trying to entertain ourselves until we go to bed, and concludes “if you look at all the things we spend money on and all the things we think we need, what’s the cost of peace?”

It’s a fascinating interview and well worth your time:

Yes. The answer is yes.

The battleground.

And the question is: Are noise-filled carriages bad for your health? Hannah Jane Parkinson, The Guardian, is righteously appalled about a bone-headed idea floated by UK railway company South Western Railways which is considering getting rid of quiet carriages.  For some of us–raises hand as high as one can–quiet cars on Amtrak and state-run transit are the one of the few saving graces of an increasingly overused, underfunded public transit system here in the U.S. So reading that South Western Railways may kill quiet carriages not due to lack of interest but because “[t]he rise of mobile phones, loud music players and a general lack of etiquette mean that quiet zones are now virtually unenforceable,” is an absolute outrage.

Parkinson writes that some people think that quietness is overrated [Ed: monsters!] and says that “[p]sychotherapist and writer Philippa Perry suggests that we are becoming frightened of quietness, possibly as a result of technology.” But Parkinson sides with those of us who just want a moment that isn’t filled with layers of unavoidable sound, even suggesting prison sentences for the sound-loving louts who would rob the rest of us of just a few seconds of peace:

Seven years. That’s the minimum prison sentence that should apply to people on public transport who listen to music through their phone speakers (also known as “sodcasting”) – with two years for banal phone conversations that never end.

We agree, and would suggest similar sentencing guidelines for people wearing headphones who sing along, badly, to whatever they are listening to and those who set their phone volume to 11 and engage the tapping sound on their phone keyboards.

In the end, though, we can’t and shouldn’t avoid all sound, but the artificial sounds imposed on us by marketing miscreants and social louts can be controlled. Instead of getting rid of quiet cars on trains, why not make them all quiet except for one loud car for the uncaring and boorish? Tired of trying to eat a meal in peace only to have some miscreant spend his or her entire meal shouting into their smart phone? Interpose yourself into the conversation by offering unsolicited advice or agreeing with the unseen person on the other end. And refuse to give a dime of encouragement to the amateur “entertainers” who leap onto your subway car just as the doors close, armed with a boom box or bongos–yes, really–with the intent of destroying your sanity for the next three minutes.

People have begun to accept that noise is normal and that wanting quiet is some quirky affectation. But noise isn’t normal and should not be the default. We need to push back against the bad behavior of the noise makers and reclaim our public spaces.  So demand more quiet cars. Ask someone to stop shouting into their phone.  And know you are not alone.

Do not do this

Rosemary Behan, The National, writes about the shockingly common use of smart phones for entertainment, sans earbuds, in public places. Behan starts her piece by recounting a recent encounter with a stranger in which she had to ask him to turn down the volume of his smart phone. Why? Because he had “casually been using his smartphone as a home cinema, without earphones” for five minutes and she decided that she “didn’t want to spend any part of my Friday morning listening to the loud film clips of a random stranger.”  We have all been there.

What follows is Behan’s lament about how often we are subjected to this kind of behavior and her wish that “hotels, restaurants, cafes, or airline managers” would “lay down the rules about this kind of thing” or, perhaps, keep “a supply of disposable headphones on hand, for this purpose.” If only.

The problem, of course, is that the miscreant with the loud phone can completely focus on whatever he or she wishes to without a worry about annoying others (seemingly), while the annoyed others cannot concentrate on their immediate interest or concern because of the miscreant’s use of his or her phone for entertainment. Hence quiet cars on trains, which Amtrak introduced at the urging of regular commuters who “had become fed up with obnoxious cell phone chatter,” and which have since been adopted by other train systems.

Count us among those who are grateful for the quiet car, but isn’t it a concession by the train operators that they are unable or unwilling to police the anti-social behavior of some percentage of their riders? Separation is probably be the best option–it’s relatively free of friction and more certain to reward those seeking some quiet–but why is it even necessary to complain about this frankly selfish behavior? By trying to find ways to accommodate both those who want some control over their soundscape and those who don’t give a damn who they distract and offend, are we not rewarding bad behavior? In the end, do we make the problem worse tomorrow by not discouraging this anti-social behavior today?

Chronic noise exposure linked to heart disease, stroke

Photo credit: G.M. Briggs

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

In 2017, research done at Massachusetts General Hospital reported that stress caused activation of the amygdala, a part of the brain involved with emotions, and this in turn was correlated with vascular inflammation and increased rates of cardiovascular disease and death. But to my knowledge, no one had yet linked stress caused by transportation noise directly to increased cardiovascular risk.

At the recent American Heart Association meeting, however, researchers also from Massachusetts General Hospital presented information to make this direct connection.

The adverse effects of transportation noise on health have been reviewed before, but the new report shows yet another mechanism for these adverse effects.

As Mathias Basner, MD MSc, president of the International Commission on the Biological Effects of Noise, wrote in 2016, “[t]he overwhelming majority of noise effect researchers today accept that there is a causal relationship between environmental noise exposure and increased cardiovascular risk.”

This new report is another piece of evidence to support Basner’s statement.

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.