Peace and Quiet

New research shows health benefits of exposure to birdsong

Photo credit: sue licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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

Researchers affiliated with CalPoly University and the Max Planck Institute designed a “phantom sound” method to systematically explore the effects of
exposure to birdsong on the well being of hikers in a natural landscape. Guess what: just the sound of birds singing makes a significant difference!

The method used for this study echoes Jesse Barber’s brilliantly-conceived and widely-acclaimed “phantom road” research at the University of Idaho that showed the effects of highway noise on birds’ migratory and feeding habits.

Both of these research projects brilliantly demonstrate the importance of careful experimental design in doing noise-effects research. Congratulations to the participants in both projects! They will both advance the need for regaining control of the long-neglected issue of noise exposure.

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.

Lockdown quiet offers post-pandemic possibilities

Photo credit: Hans-Peter Bock hpbock@avaapgh.de licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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

As I have written previously, talk among advocates for less noise, like John Stewart of the UK’s Noise Association, has noted that the pandemic may have provided us  the opportunity to reflect on changes we could make that will lead to less noise, air pollution, and climate emissions. The changes focus on reduced dependence on cars, increased space for walking and cycling, and improved public transit.

An article by Bidroha Basu et al., discusses the results of a study that investigated sound levels in Dublin, Ireland before and after lockdown imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and provides data supporting the call for more walking and cycling space and improved public transit. The data indicated that sound levels at 12 monitoring stations were reduced after the lockdown. With road traffic noise the dominant noise source for all but two of these sites, the authors believe that it was the road traffic noise reduction during the pandemic that, for the most part, led to lower sound level readings. With one of the sites located near an airport, the authors do comment that air traffic slowdown during the pandemic probably led to the lower sound level at this site.

The article adds that with “noise pollution associated with ill health…city-wide reductions in sound and noise could provide important public health benefits.” The authors also suggest that cities around the world install similar sound monitoring systems to monitor and assess their noise mitigation strategies.

While the horrors brought about by the pandemic have caused much harm to people worldwide, one could take some solace in recognizing that COVID-19 allowed us to rethink our traditional modes of behavior in a way that could lead to behaviors that would enhance everyone’s health and well being.

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.

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.

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.

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.

NYC contemplating property assessment via drone

Photo credit: Pok Rie from Pexels

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

With New Yorkers constantly complaining about aircraft and helicopter noise intrusions on their lives, one would like to know whether New York City’s proposal to use drones to assist with property assessment will rachet up the noise level. A quick internet search reveals articles on drones whose buzzing is disturbing as well as to articles on the design of quieter drones. Coupled with the concern about the noise drones make are questions about the safety of flying drones in the city of New York.

Peter Senzamici, The City, writes that Councilmember Paul Vallone has been in the forefront of a recently passed City Council bill on drones “calling for a study of their use in façade inspections.” In addition, Councilmember Vallone is asking for a task force to study the regulation of drones. The task force will also be looking at other ways in which the city can use drones. Thus, you can understand why city assessors fear that drones may be used to assess the value of properties and argue that “you need an actual human eye to look at each property.”

As a researcher on the impacts of noise on health and well-being, I would like to know whether the task force will have a member who can ask questions about the potential impacts of drone sounds on the city’s inhabitants, including pets and wildlife. With other cities using drones for inspections and safety for years, as the article indicates, we could ask these cities if they have collected data on noise impacts. If my knowledge on noise can be of help to the task force, I gladly offer my assistance. For now, I am concerned about potentially adding more noise to our city.

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.

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 importance of quiet in times of stress

Photo credit: Reynaldo #brigworkz Brigantty from Pexels

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

In previous posts, I have cited studies on how human-made sounds and noises in our oceans adversely impacted the health and welfare of whales and other ocean species and how a quieter ocean put less stress on its inhabitants. Sabrina Imbler, writing for the New York Times, describes the natural sounds of the ocean’s inhabitants so that we can have a better “understanding of healthy remote ecosystems.” The instruments now used by acousticians allow them to register the sounds that “lurk thousands of feet below the surface.” The acousticians, as Dr. Tzu-Hao Lin discusses in this article, are not only interested in the sounds of sea creatures but also the “ambient hum of the deep sea.”

The recordings of the soundscapes obtained by the researchers will provide information about smaller “deep sea noisemakers” that up to now we have known little about. Dr. Lin wants to make these recordings available online so that more researchers can involve themselves in the research which has drawn so much of his attention. However, Dr. Lin expresses concern that deep-sea mining interests might disrupt larval settlement of certain sea creatures and disrupt the lives of these creatures for many years to come.

Besides the knowledge provided by Dr. Lin and his associates about the ecosystems of these interesting sea creatures, this research also makes us more aware of the fact that humans share the land and the sea with many other species and that all of the species are entitled to healthy ecosystems.

Like the sea creatures in Dr. Lin’s studies, humans are very much affected by their surroundings as well and this is underscored in a second article in the New York Times by Tara Parker-Pope. The 2020 election, as well as the COVID pandemic, have brought much stress into the lives of millions of Americans and Parker-Pope writes about the advice given by neurologists, psychologists, and mediation experts to lessen our anxiety. It came as no surprise to me that she recommended the importance of quiet in soothing our anxiety and enhancing our mental health.

Parker-Pope suggests walking on “quiet, tree-lined paths” and connecting with nature. Silencity readers know how much attention has been paid to soundwalks and their impact on our well-being. I, a Manhattan resident, am fortunate enough to live near a river and a park and can attest that my morning walks along the river and the green park have most certainly provided the comfort I yearn for during this difficult time. Yet, I still long for a smooth electoral process as we move forward and a successful development of a coronavirus vaccine to lessen my stress.

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.