Noise

Noise returns to Europe after Covid quiet interlude

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Politico reports that noise levels in Europe are increasing after several months of quiet during the COVID-19 shutdowns. Most noise in developed countries is transportation noise from road traffic, aircraft, and trains. When the COVID-19 pandemic led to decreases in all sorts of transportation, Europe and the U.S. became quieter.

This is a good thing. As the article notes, noise is toxic to both humans and animals. Urban dwellers heard birdsong, often for the first time, because it wasn’t obscured by the din of traffic.

The dangers of noise are recognized in Europe, where the World Health Organization published Environmental Noise Guidelines in 2018.

In the U.S., the dangers of noise were recognized in the Noise Control Act of 1972 and the Quiet Communities Act of 1978, but implementation of these two laws stopped during the Reagan years when the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control was defunded.

We hope that under the Biden administration, implementation of laws meant to protect the health and wellbeing of all Americans from the dangers of noise will become a reality again.

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.

Au revoir, les noisy frogs

Photo credit: Egor Kamelev from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The Guardian reports that in the Dordogne region of France, a judge ruled that homeowners must drain their pond to eliminate noisy frogs bothering their neighbors. On one side of the matter is a useful habitat for local fauna, and on the other a very tired neighbor.

The problem is that during mating season, the frogs’ calls have been measured at 63 decibels (dB) at the neighbors’ window. Sound pressure levels as low as 30-35 A-weighted decibels* can disrupt sleep. The decibel scale is logarithmic, so 63 dB isn’t just twice as loud as 31.5 dB but orders of magnitude greater. (I would also note that in psychoacoustics the word loudness has specific meaning, and here I am just using it as we use it in everyday speech.)

The situation is complicated by the fact that some of the frogs belong to endangered species, and the small pond serves as a local watering hole for other animals, including deer and wild boar.

Nature lovers are concerned, and the case is being appealed to France’s highest court. Keep an eye here to find out how it ends.

*A-weighting adjusts sound measurements for the frequencies heard in human speech.

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.

How to make virtual meetings more accessible for the hearing impaired

Photo credit: Anna Shvets from Pexels

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

Virtual meetings have become the standard during the pandemic and participants have reported that at times it is difficult hearing others because their microphones are cutting in and out. But for the hearing impaired, virtual meetings are even more challenging because they often rely on reading lips to assist them in hearing what has been said and they find it more difficult to lip read during virtual meetings, according to this recent article.

Capital One has addressed the problem of hearing other participants in Zoom calls by employing a computer assisted real-time translation that enables all participants to read real time audio transcripts of what is being said at these meetings. One can readily find live transcription offers for Zoom on the internet. The post notes that many people working from home actually find it difficult to hear others during vitual meetings because of noises in their homes and, thus, the visual translation is proving beneficial for all people on these calls.

There are also other suggestions about how Zoom meetings can be made easier for people with hearing loss, e. g., sending out agendas for meetings ahead of time, sharing documents to be discussed before the meetings. Again, these suggestions will be appreciated by all the virtual meeting attendees.

I have found that generally making adjustments for people with disabilities, whether they be physical, auditory, or visual, usually benefits a larger body of individuals. For example, lowering the step on buses for individuals who cannot climb up the higher step, e. g. elderly individual, person with a cane, is also helpful to the mother who is entering the bus with her three-year old or the individual who is carrying heavy packages. And lowering the decibel level of music in restaurants not only benefits individuals with hearing deficits but is generally welcomed by all diners who find it easier to converse in quieter environments.

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.

I can’t hear myself think!

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Most of us are familiar with the Oxford English Dictionary as the worldwide arbiter of English language words–“the definitive record of the English language,” it humbly boasts–even if we use the Merriam-Webster dictionary in the U.S. But it turns out that there’s also a Cambridge Dictionary. And the Cambridge Dictionary publishes a blog about about words. The blog’s name: “About Words,” and in the December 2, 2020, post they tackled “interesting ways of saying ‘noisy.'” As writer Liz Walter notes, the word loud is itself neutral, but noisy almost implies that the sound is unreasonable or annoying.

The standard definition of noise, which I have traced back to a committee of the Acoustical Society of America in the early 1930s, is “noise is unwanted sound.” That definition has been enshrined in the definitions of the American National Standards Institute, and cited by authorities like the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, among many others.

Of course, I prefer my new definition of noise, “noise is unwanted and/or harmful sound.”  After all, even wanted sound, such as that at a rock concert or motorsports event, can be harmful. Just calling noise “unwanted sound” also communicates a value judgment about those complaining about loud sound, implying that those who complain must have something wrong with them, being overly sensitive, neurotic, radical environmentalists, or busybodies who want to interfere with someone else’s enjoyment of loud music or motorcycles with modified exhaust pipes.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that regardless of which formal definition one uses, or with other words or phrases one uses to describe it, noise is sound energy and noise causes auditory damage.

As I often say, if it sounds loud, it’s too loud. Avoid loud noise or insert earplugs now, or need hearing aids later.

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.

Irish commuters to be serenaded by birdsong at train stations

Photo credit: William Murphy licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The Irish Examiner reports that the Irish train system, Iarnród Éireann, will be playing birdsong at train stations between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. until November 29. The birdsong  recordings were made in Dublin during the lockdown quiet, which allowed people to hear birds instead of vehicle and train noise.

The newspaper reports that “On Chorus is a public art project by sound artist Christopher Steenson which aims to highlight the dramatic reduction in noise pollution in Ireland during the first Covid-19 lockdown.“ Steenson’s art work asks listeners to reflect on the relative quiet during the lockdown, and also is a gesture of appreciation to essential workers, who in Ireland were the only ones permitted to travel during the lockdown.

The birdsongs will be played from 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. Irish time here for anyone who wants to listen. Irish Standard Time is Greenwich Mean Time 0. In the United States, Eastern Standard Time is GMT -5, Pacific Standard Time is GMT -8. A series of photographs taken by Steenson will also be available on the site.

What a wonderful idea: making art from the silver lining to the terror and tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic, as Steenson does, reminding us of the beauty of nature amidst man’s horrors.

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 pandemic’s changing soundscape

Photo credit: Sanaan Mazhar from Pexels

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

Bridget Read, The Cut, identifies the past eight months of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of the dimmed and heightened sounds in her environment. She associates the start of the pandemic with the silencing of many of the customary sounds in the environment, e.g. less horn honking, no din from restaurants, the absence of the voices and shouts of children as they leave school at three p.m. On the other hand, the increase in ambulance sirens reminded her, as it did many of us, of the people who had fallen victim to COVID-19. This thought also brought us greater fear.

April brought on the sounds of clapping in the evenings to say “Thank you” to our hospital workers, postal workers and grocery store employees. In late May, Read writes that there was the explosion of sounds that accompanied the marches and demonstrations after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. July 4th is generally recognized with fireworks, but July 4, 2020, brought about many more localized fireworks that actually started before the 4th and went on for weeks afterwards. But as the summer ended and autumn approached, Read writes that there was a quieter period as if people were holding their breath as they reflected on a potential second wave of the pandemic.

November was ushered in by long lines of people waiting to vote and quietly reflecting on who would be elected the next president. Then, on a warm Saturday in early November, Read was overwhelmed by cheers, clapping, car honking, and loud talking from the streets. Everyone seemed to be making lots of noise. What brought about all these sounds–Donald Trump had lost the election.

More excitement followed for the next few days with people rushing out into the streets to celebrate the election of Joseph Biden. Music seemed to be everywhere as people danced in the streets. These sounds that accompanied joy may have been brief, according to Read, but the joy was real.

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 noise

Photo credit: Magda Ehlers from Pexels

David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coaliton

If you’re not already familiar with the Soundproofist podcast series based in San Francisco, we recommend tuning in. This well-produced podcast is exclusively focused on sound and noise. In two episodes podcast host Cary interviews our Quiet Coalition co-founder and colleague, Antonelle Radicchi, PhD, at the Technical University of Berlin, on soundwalks and her Hush City app. Dr. Radicchi spent part of last year here in the U.S., working with noise researchers at New York University. Her stay here culminated with her organizing a fascinating, day-long workshop at New York University on noise and the city.

“The Soundproofist” also recently interviewed our colleague Dr. Arline Bronzaft.

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.

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.

The effect of noise and comforting sound on humans

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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

I am a regular reader of the New York Times Tuesday Science section and was delighted to see two references to sound in the In Brief Section by Nicholas Bakalar on November 3rd (print version). In his brief titled “Noise May Raise Dementia Risk” Bakalar cites a study linking noise to increased risk for Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia. The authors, conducting a study on aging, looked at residents living in communities, both quiet and noisy, and found that community noise level resulted in a higher likelihood of cognitive impairment, as well as a risk for Alzheimer’s disease. The lead author, Jennifer Weuve, could only hypothesize about the connection but she suggested that excessive noise can result in sleep deprivation, hearing loss and changes in blood pressure—“all of which are associated with an increased risk for dementia.”

With so many people living longer lives today, this study suggests further research into the potential impact of long-term noise on one’s mental health. However, as stated numerous times before, there is enough evidence on the hazards of noise to our mental and physical health to warrant lessening noise pollution NOW.

The second brief is titled “Children: Not Picky About Lullabies” and cites a study led by Bainbridge and Bertolo in which the researchers found that lullabies, sung in many different languages and from different cultures, relaxed young infants. That infants can be calmed by songs from different languages, different cultures and different voices may also indicate that humans at the start do not center on differences amongst groups but upon similarities, namely the comforting sounds emanating from their voices.

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.

Battery-powered leaf blowers: Has their time finally come?

Photo credit: Coolkasun licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

As we have written about many times, gas-powered leaf blowers are the bane of both urban and suburban residents, especially now during the autumn leaf drop season. Previous generations just raked the leaves or let them provide a natural mulch in quiet corners of the yard, but the modern lawn care standard has become “no leaf left behind.”

Rakes are natural, quiet, and provide gentle exercise to the legs, trunk, and upper body. Leaf blowers, even battery-powered ones, aerosolize pet waste, tire waste, spores, and other noxious and toxic substances. And gas-powered leaf blowers are a major source of air pollution.

Despite the hopes of many, though, I don’t think landscape workers and many homeowners will return to using rakes, but three recent observations give me hope that gas-powered leaf blowers will be replaced with battery-powered models.

First, on trips to Home Depot, Lowe’s, and ACE Hardware, there were prominent displays of battery-powered leaf blowers in the desired “end cap” location, along the main aisles of the store.

Second, last Sunday’s Parade magazine had an insert from a well-recognized landscape maintenance tool manufacturer promoting its line of battery-powered equipment, with powerful 40 volt batteries.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve recently seen a number of landscapers and gardeners using battery-powered leaf blowers.

I’ve spoken to a few professional gardeners and they all tell me the battery-powered leaf blowers are more than powerful enough for them to do their job easily, they don’t have to fuss with gasoline or trying to start the two-stroke engine, and they don’t have a headache or ringing in the ears at the end of the day.

The Atlantic covered Washington, D.C.’s gas-powered leaf blower ban. And in testimony before the District Council, Atlantic Monthly editor James Fallows discussed the technological advances in lithium batteries that make battery-powered leaf blowers feasible.

Maybe battery-powered leaf blowers’ time has finally come?

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.