Peace and Quiet

What is a normal noise level for humans?

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

What is normal noise for humans? That probably depends on whether you are asking about modern life or about our pastoral past life. In the 1960s, researchers measured excellent hearing and very low ambient noise levels in the nomadic Mabaan population in the southern Sudan and the Kalahari Bushmen in South Africa. But modern life is much noisier.

On an alpine hike in the Austrian Tirol in September, I strolled through the meadow behind me in the photo. I pulled out my iPhone 6 and measured the sound with the Faber Sound Meter 4 app, which has been shown to be almost as accurate as a certified sound meter. The reading was in the low 40-decibel range. That noise came from the wind, distant road traffic noise, and an occasional distant airplane.

This is what humans, including those living in agrarian regions until agriculture was mechanized in the twentieth century, experienced. No motorcycle exhausts, no diesel engines, no helicopters. And restaurants didn’t have amplified music, either.

Humans didn’t evolve in noise. We evolved in quiet. We don’t have protective mechanisms against chronic loud noise exposure. And in an answer to the question at the top of this piece, the normal noise level for humans is quiet.

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.

New York City construction noise complaints soar

Photo credit: G.M. Briggs

The NY Daily News reports that “[b]ooming construction and lax efforts by city agencies to control it have led to soaring noise complaints in the five boroughs.” Once again New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli is the source of this information, as his office audited construction noise complaints that were called into the 311 system and found that the number of complaints soared from “14,259 in 2010 to 37,806 in 2015, with the vast majority involving work taking place late at night or early in the morning.”

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Department of Buildings (DOB) are primarily responsible for dealing with construction noise complaints. The “DEP is responsible for responding to 311 construction noise complaints,” and the “DOB reviews and approves building plans; conducts building inspections; and issues permits, including those for after-hours work.” DiNapoli’s auditors “selected a sample of noise complaints for 50 incident addresses….including the 30 locations with the highest number of construction noise complaints in the city (29 of these locations were in Manhattan) and an additional five locations with the most complaints in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.”

Incredibly, the inspectors found there was “no excessive noise” for 211 of the 250 complaints, “and only three complaints resulted in violations being issued by DEP.”  Actually, it’s not so incredible, as the Comptroller’s Office notes that the “inspectors did not visit the locations until an average of five days after the noise was reported, and there were “no reports of meter readings performed at the sites to determine if noise levels were excessive.” In addition, “[w]hen making decisions to grant after hours work variances, DOB officials did not consider construction noise complaints made to 311, nor did they consider construction noise citations issued by DEP.” It’s not exactly surprising that noise complaints increased, given how few violations were issued.

As with his report about bars and nightclubs, DiNapoli made recommendations to address the increase in construction noise complaints. The DOB agreed to all three recommendations directed to them, while the DEP agreed to three out of six. Now we wait to see if it makes a difference.

Thanks to Jeanine Botta for the link to the Comptroller’s press release.

Noise is the excreta of technological civilization

Photo credit: G.M. Briggs

Jonathan Power, author and former foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune, writes about favorite sounds and the scourge that is noise. Power’s favorite sounds “are the quiet sounds of the English Lake District,” which he contrasts with the sound of noise: cars and trucks, airplanes and builders, canned music in cafes, a symphony playing an atonal concerto.  “Noise,” he concludes, “is the excreta of technological civilization,” adding that “[o]ne study predicts that exposure to loud music will cause 50 million Americans to suffer heavy hearing loss by 2050.”

Power looks at the health effects of noise–not just damage to hearing, but also “high blood pressure, disturbed sleep and even heart disease.” He writes about the fight against another runway at Heathrow and the political fight that was lost–or is it?–by the tens of thousands living near the airport, while noting that smaller battles can be won. And while noise “is never likely to compete with other political issues such as unemployment and nuclear weapons in North Korea,” Power notes that politicians are sensitive to political pressure. Moreover, he lists measures that have been tried and tested in various places which can be borrowed wherever we live, like Switzerland’s ban on the driving of heavy trucks at night and on Sundays, or the U.S.’s and UK’s modification of noise regulations in 1976 which required older aircraft to comply with noise limits set for new aircraft.

Power calls for us to put these and other examples on social media and, more importantly, to “demand MORE, and distribute your demands far and wide.”  In the end, if we want to enjoy our favorite sounds, we have to fight for the right to hear them.

Noisy restaurants in the news again

Photo credit: Matt Biddulph licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Two reports this week, one from the United Kingdom and one from Baton Rouge, again highlight the problem of noisy restaurants.

Restaurateurs say that a quiet restaurant is a dead or dying one. They want their places to be lively. But there’s a difference between a lively restaurant with spirited conversations going on among the diners, and one that is deafeningly loud, making it impossible to converse with one’s dining companions.

Yesterday, while looking for another piece of information in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) classic 1974 “Noise Levels Report” Information on Levels of Environmental Noise Requisite to Protect Public Health and Welfare with an Adequate Margin of Safety (EPA, 1974). I came across Table D-10, which I had missed on an earlier reading.

EPA Recommended Acceptable Noise Levels for Restaurants  (Click to enlarge)

It turns out that the EPA recommends that restaurants be very quiet, only about 50-60 decibels. These days, that’s almost “library quiet”. In fact, some months ago I measured the sound level to be approximately 45 dBA in the main circulation room of my local library!

So concern about appropriate restaurant noise levels is not a new concern. It’s decades old.

Some have suggested that diners should walk out of noisy restaurants, or boycott them. But in many cities, if we did that, we would never eat in a restaurant. There just aren’t any quiet ones. And as long as the restaurants are full, there is no incentive for them to become quieter.

I don’t know about the UK, but in the U.S., lawsuits under disability rights laws may be the only way restaurants will become quieter.

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.

Quiet aircraft coming to an airport near you?

Photo credit: Pedro Aragão licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

By David Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

People who live near airports have struggled with noise for over 50 years. The first attempts to address this problem began in 1967, literally 50 years ago! But frankly, there’s been more progress on this issue outside the U.S., where, for example, the World Health Organization has addressed the burden of disease from environmental noise and the European Union has established night noise guidelines for Europe.

Meanwhile, here on American soil, the struggle continues with groups like the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus and regional Quiet Skies groups experimenting with different approaches. A variety of strategies have been tested with varying success: petitions, fines, law suits, noise curfews, legislation, even complete airport shutdowns. Every American community that has confronted this issue realizes it’s a tough, long, uphill battle against powerful regulatory agencies and corporations that are more committed to commerce than to public health and welfare.

So, why can’t Boeing or somebody just make a quiet aircraft?

Actually they can—that is, the EU conglomerate Airbus canand already does. And the world’s largest passenger airplane, also made by Airbus–the A380–is the quietest both inside and out. So this isn’t a technological problem. Rather, aircraft engineers, manufacturers (other than Airbus), and the airlines that buy their planes, don’t seem to care about the impact of their products on those on the ground.

Interestingly, the quiet jet engine on the Airbus A320neo is made by the American company Pratt & Whitney.

Hooray! So why don’t U.S. airlines buy the A320neo equipped with its quiet jet engines? Wouldn’t this help to address the aircraft noise problem?

Good question.

For U.S. residents there’s also this good news: a new NASA program to develop quiet electric aircraft was recently announced, but the quiet electric aircraft are small propeller craft, so this is the kind of innovation you’ll see at smaller local airports in a few years.

What about helicopters? Can they make quiet helicopters too? The answer is yes again. Quiet, electric helicopters are also in development.

Conclusion? Maybe “technology substitution”–which works in other sectors–is the uniquely American way out of this dilemma.

At any rate, government-funded research and development (R&D) efforts by NASA and Pratt & Whitney demonstrate that somebody is listening! And in typical American fashion, it appears we will invent our way out of the airport noise mess by convincing the government to accelerate funding of both public and private sector R&D—from which entrepreneurs and business titans will reap rewards later.

At The Quiet Coalition and our host, Quiet Communities, we believe that local and regional anti-noise groups might have greater success if, in addition to the other strategies they’re already trying, they also emphasize “technology substitution.” This approach has worked well in cities and towns on issues like:

– leaf blowers and lawn mowers (convince your parks and recreation department to buy electric!);
– motorcycles (get them off Harleys and onto quieter electric motorcycles);
– appliances (the best-selling dishwasher these days is made in Germany and has become very popular worldwide because it’s quiet);
– air conditioning equipment (the best-selling household air-conditioning equipment is the quiet kind from Korea called “mini-splits” that were engineered to be quiet); and
– outdoor concerts (where wireless headsets are replacing noisy outdoor concert venues).

So our tech-driven American approach to “progress” may eventually get us to a quieter end-state—but the emphasis is on eventually.

In the meantime, until quieter times arrive, those of us who live near airports will have to either continue wearing earplugs or maybe experiment with the new “smart earbuds” that are now available.

And don’t forget the final option: move to a quieter neighborhood where your house isn’t underneath a flight path! Because you might have to wait a while before the above solutions arrive.

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 former board member of the American Tinnitus Association, co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, served as lead-author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), and was 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.

How to deal with noisy neighbors

By Arline L. Bronzaft, PhD, Board of Directors, GrowNYC

Alexandra Levine’s recent article on noisy neighbors revealed how New York Today readers have dealt with noisy neighbors. While simply speaking to your “noisy” neighbor may result in a lessening of the din, there are many times when polite requests don’t work. Some residents, we learn from the article, turn to shaming their neighbors into quieting down. I have heard about others who “fight back” by inflicting similar intrusive sounds on the offensive neighbors. I do not suggest this latter response because I believe people inflicted by noise have a better case when they don’t engage in similar offensive behavior.

As a member of the board of directors of GrowNYC, where I oversee its noise activities, I am often asked to intervene on behalf of New York City residents whose requests to their neighbors–and even to the managing agents of their buildings–to “quiet it down” have gone unheeded. In writing to the managing agents on behalf of the people who have sought my assistance, I urge them to direct their attention to my research and writings on the adverse effects of noise on health. I explain that noise is not just an annoyance—it’s a health hazard–and that those in charge of managing buildings must familiarize themselves with the deleterious effects of noise so that they do not dismiss noise complaints, as many do.

When we talk about noise we are not necessarily talking about loud sounds, as bothersome sounds can disturb sleep, rest, or simply reading or watching television. Noise is defined as unwanted, unpredictable, and uncontrollable sound. Short of the harmful effects of noise on health that are discussed in the research, noise diminishes one’s quality of life.

I include GrowNYC’s Noise brochure which discusses health effects of noise and ways to lessen noise with my letters to managing agents. I also point out that under the the warranty of habitability clause in their leases residents in both rental buildings and cooperative dwellings are entitled to “reasonable quiet” in their homes. In follow-up phone calls to my initial letters, I explain the word “reasonable.” One could say that a reasonable person would be bothered by footsteps from the above apartment at six a.m. in the morning. Unreasonableness, on the other hand, would be a complaint of a toy dropped by a visiting grandchild once and only once.

I will then direct the telephone conversation to the specific noise problem and ways to abate it. I ask if the required carpeting is in place in the apartment and if the superintendent or managing agent has gone to the apartment to hear the noise. I, too, have dealt with a sex complaint that was handled by suggesting that the couple who was the source of the noise move their bed several inches from the wall so that it would no longer bang against it during sex. Often, I suggest that all residents receive flyers that speak to the harmful effects of noise and what can be done to lessen noises in their own apartments.  Finally, I stress that neighbors should be informed that living together in a building means respecting the rights of others, and this includes greater quiet in apartments.

New Yorkers face so much noise as they traverse the streets of our city. When they get to their apartments and close their doors, they hope for some quiet. Let’s join together and provide quiet for our neighbors and in return hope they will do the same for us.

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.

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?

 

Au revoir to noisy vacuum cleaners?

Photo credit: Robert Scarth licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The answer is yes! Well, at least in the European Union (EU), that is. Some folks like to mock the EU and its many regulations as “the Nanny State,” but we think that regulations protecting the public from harm–be it financial harm, damage to the environment, or harm to their health–are a good thing. So new EU regulations governing vacuum cleaner noise and power consumption are good for those living in Europe and likely will have an impact on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, too.

Noise is a ubiquitous health hazard, causing hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis. Research shows that most Americans get too much noise every day and certainly appliance noise contributes to the total daily noise dose. Excessive noise exposure accounts for the recently reported high rate of noise-induced hearing loss in American adults. Quieter vacuum cleaners will help reduce the total daily noise dose.

We know that the Trump administration and Republican politicians believe in the free market, not in regulation. They like to use the pejorative phrase “job-killing regulations.” But it’s clear from past experience that regulations that benefit consumers and the environment will lead to increased sales, and increased jobs, in the United States and worldwide.

American companies ignore international regulations and international standards at their own peril. In the appliance market, this already happened with dishwashers, where over the last several years Bosch and other European manufacturers have a foothold in the American market which they gained by manufacturing and marketing quieter dishwashers. It’s happening with airplanes, where Airbus has stolen market share from once-predominant Boeing by producing quieter and more efficient planes. It happened with air conditioners, where Mitsubishi has taken the technological leadership away from Carrier, the inventor of air conditioning equipment.

We don’t think most people will rush out to buy quieter vacuum cleaners to replace their machine if it is working well, but when it comes time to replace it anyone wanting quiet–and particularly those with pets, autistic children, or elderly people at home–will choose a quieter and more energy-efficient European vacuum cleaner over its American-branded competitors.

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.

Want to live in the city? Here’s a calculus you should consider:

, a licensed real estate agent writing for The Washington Post, looks at the “noise-v.-walkability trade-off.” Kaminsky states that while “[w]aking up in a city that never sleeps is an exhilarating and romantic notion,” the reality–screaming sirens and honking horns at night, deafening construction noises all day–leaves something to be desired. But despite all the noise that comes with the urban experience, living in a city has never been more popular. Why? Walkability is the main reason that millennials give for preferring city living, but older Americans who are downsizing are also leaving the suburbs for city centers.

What can you do if you want to live in the big city? Kaminstky offers this word of advice: “[d]on’t think that you are going to move to the city and then win the fight against noise.” So what does she suggest? Her number one suggestion is this: look up. Whether buying or renting, higher floors are quieter. To see all of Kaminsky’s suggestions, click the link above.

How can you quiet noisy spaces?

Photo credit: Suguru Yamamoto licensed under CC BY 2.0

It’s designers and engineers to the rescue, with the development of new materials and systems to improve the sound quality of public spaces and work environments. Danish textile company Kvadrat has developed a three-dimensional acoustic textile panel system that is meant to “bring ‘softness’ to minimalist spaces.” Kvadrat Soft Cells is a modular system, in which “[e]ach panel comprises a recycled aluminium frame filled with acoustic foam, which can be covered with a wide range of Kvadrat textiles.” Their approach helps architects working with free-form surfaces in a wide variety of different shapes, “which enables architects to design spaces with very specific acoustic properties.” Says design director Jesper Nielsen, “[w]ith this very open and lightweight construction you have the possibility to adjust the absorptive qualities of the surface between absorption, reflection and diffusion.”

Another breakthrough in sound abatement is the development of a sound absorbing material called Basotect®. Developed by BASF, Basotect® “is made from the chemicals melamine and formaldehyde which usually react to form a hard plastic,” but BASF “added a ‘blowing agent’ that turns to gas and creates bubbles inside the polymer.” Basotect® has some “interesting properties”:

As well as being a thermal insulator, it has the remarkable ability to turn sound into heat. The mechanism is simple. Sound waves are better able to enter its open cell structure than a closed cell. Inside the material, the waves set the polymer strands vibrating, heating them up. This heat then radiates away.

So how effective is Basotect®  at absorbing sound?  According to the New Scientist, it:

[H]elped improve the sound quality in Beijing’s swimming stadium built for the 2008 Olympics. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York utilized it to create an immersive installation called PSAD Synthetic Desert III by artist Doug Wheeler where visitors can escape the sounds of the city….

In the best of all worlds, we would control noise at the outset so that mitigation would be unnecessary. Sadly, that world does not exist. For us, we must turn to designers and engineers to design materials that absorb and diffuse sound and make public spaces and workplaces hearing friendly.