Peace and Quiet

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.

 

 

 

Yes, please!

Goodbye awkwardness, hello quiet!

Salon offers quiet chair to avoid awkward small talk.  Sonia Haria, The Telegraph, reports that the salon, located in Cardiff, Wales, introduced a ‘quiet chair’ “so clients can get their hair done without feeling the pressure of making small-talk.” The owner of the salon stated that “[s]ome clients worry they aren’t good at chatting, some just don’t want to do it at all and would rather relax with a magazine.”  We understand. This is a brilliant idea. Customers can request the quiet chair when they book their appointment, and if there’s more than one customer who would rather avoid conversation at the same time, “any stylist can be told to keep it quiet.” And then there’s the bit we really like: “Even the music can be turned down at the client’s request.”

It’s a long flight to Cardiff, but a small price to pay for a peaceful haircut.

Link via Hyperacusis Research.

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.

 

Looking for a quiet restaurant? Wall St. values this “quiet” chain at $7.5 billion

Photo credit: Mike Mozart CC by 2.0

By David Sykes, Vice-chair, The Quiet Coalition

Yearn for a quiet spot to dine where you can chat (or read) without clamour? If that seems hopeless in America’s noisy restaurants don’t give up—change is on the way.

It’s true that for decades restaurants in America have gotten louder and more cacophonous on purpose. Why? Restaurateurs and their designers say data show that profits climb when noise levels are high because their patrons are:

  1. attracted by the “buzz,”
  2. drink more alcohol,
  3. consume more food faster, and
  4. leave quickly, allowing more patrons to sit down and repeat the process.

True or not, those crowded, noisy eateries are designed to be that way. The good news is that, just as easily, they can be designed to be quiet. The bad news is that so many restaurateurs still don’t understand that the racket drives away large groups of potential patrons, and also alienates restaurant reviewers, some of whom now even carry sound level meters.

Is there such a thing as a successful quiet restaurant chain? One that profits from allowing patrons to converse with each other or read a book, or put a laptop on the table and work quietly–even at peak dining hours? Amazingly, yes. It’s one that already has 2000 stores, is the hottest “fast-casual” chain in America, and is growing faster than Starbucks. The name? Panera. Panera’s stores don’t pretend to be fashionable bistros nor do they serve alcohol. But the food is healthy, natural, fresh, and tasty and the atmosphere is definitely—and, according to acoustics experts, very consciously—designed to provide a haven where people can enjoy quiet conversations and each other without cacophony.

Quiet dining matters to lots of us—more folks than you might imagine. In fact, about 20% of people in their 20s suffer from hearing disorders (which can include hypersensitivities to noise with names like tinnitus, hyperacusis, and misophonia, conditions that make it impossible for them to enjoy restaurants or clubs). And about 50% of people in their 60s and an extraordinary 90% of people in their 80s suffer from an inability to understand speech when background noise levels are elevated. These are not “fringe” groups. Collectively, there are 40 million Americans who probably avoid dining in restaurants because they literally can’t stand the noise.

Do restaurant owners understand that? If they did, they might create quiet sections to broaden their market appeal. Many apparently do not. For those who do, the market opportunity may be considerable.

It just could be that “quiet dining” is the next trend.  For customers looking for quiet, the prospects are mouth-watering.

If you’d like to know how to make a restaurant quieter, check out: Why Acoustics are Important in Restaurant Design and Restaurant Acoustics: Restaurant Noise Reduction by Audimute.

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.

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

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.”

Open plan offices: Good or Bad? Harvard Business Review weighs in.

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

When Harvard Business Review (HBR) speaks, people listen, including those who sit in executive suites. A series of articles published in HBR about noise and distractions in open plan offices may be changing some minds. Reductions in productivity attributed to noise and distraction related to open plan designs may finally be getting the attention of corporate leaders.

Over the past several decades, open-plan offices became fashionable. If you didn’t like them, you’d be bucking a trend. Why did this type of office design become a hot topic in the executive suite? Three trends collided:

  1. “Sick-building-syndrome” became a serious, costly issue blamed on chemicals in carpets and paints, inoperable windows, and poor air circulation;
  2. Corporate leaders decided they had too much overhead (hint: expensive trophy headquarters and high end real estate); and
  3. The U.S. Department of Energy established a huge initiative to increase energy efficiency and cut costs.

Suddenly walls, carpets, fancy wood furniture, cubicles and even lightbulbs were dumped. Windows were re-opened. Dramatically branded front offices concealed cavernous, cacophonous, factory-like back offices — flooded with daylight and high levels of ambient noise. The related noise and distractions have been a growing source of complaints from workers ever since.

We wrote about this on February 16 after spending a decade working on the problem with the U.S. General Services Administration and several large corporations. And now HBR keeps writing about noise and open plan offices. So is it possible we may soon see a trend towards office designs that accommodate worker comfort, safety and, even, employee productivity? We believe it may be.

If you are working in an open-space plan or are a senior level executive concerned with employee productivity, this ongoing HBR series could help YOU. This subject has also attracted mainstream media, so maybe the boss is already listening?

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.