Public health

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.

When hearing aids don’t work

Photo credit: ikesters licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Jan L. Mayes, MSc, Audiologist

Many people with hearing difficulties delay getting help because they’re told hearing aids don’t work. But in my experience, properly fitted hearing aids can improve communication and quality of life for people with hearing difficulties.

Hearing aids are worn on each ear and come in different styles. Prescription hearing aids are selected so amplified sound and chosen features are best for all shapes and sizes of hearing difficulties in all ages. Retail hearing aids are meant for adults with mild to moderate high pitch hearing loss which is a common pattern across causes.

There are different reasons people think hearing aids don’t work. Some issues depend on the hearing aids, while others depend on the person wearing them. Unless there is a health reason that requires that they only wear one, it’s best to get a pair. Like ears, hearing aids should be in pairs for best sound audibility, localization, and communication.

Were the hearing aids fit by a hearing healthcare professional? If yes, then they were chosen to work based on individual testing results and the person’s reported difficult listening situations in daily life. Retail hearing aids won’t work if the wearer doesn’t have mild to moderate high pitch hearing loss.

Do the hearing aids have basic hearing and communication features? Basic or entry level prescription or retail hearing aids should include directional microphones for paired hearing benefits and a telecoil or hearing loop feature. Hearing aids without directional microphones won’t work well in daily life, and hearing aids without hearing loop compatibility won’t work in settings offering disability access.

Do the hearing aids offer modern digital technology? Current entry level features in behind the ear hearing aids, which start at around $1,000 per pair, include more than one listening program for quieter and noisier environments and wireless connectivity to other devices. Some hearing aids include sound therapy for people with tinnitus or decreased sound tolerance, i.e., hyperacusis. Many now have rechargeable batteries with an overnight recharging station which is a plus for convenience and the environment. Old technology hearing aids don’t work nearly as well as modern technology aids.

Were the hearing aids properly manufactured? Even brand new hearing aids can be lemons. While prescription hearing aid manufacturers typically meet international amplification acoustics standards, quality control is voluntary for manufacturers selling directly to the public with no Food and Drug Administration oversight in the U.S. Problems are common even among popular retail manufacturers, with defect rates of 100% for amplification under $150 and 66% defective when under $500 per hearing aid. New amplification sound quality problems include static and distortion, over-amplified or too loud, no high frequency amplification, broken volume control, malfunctioning directional microphones, and faulty telecoils. In my opinion, too many hearing aids sold directly to the public are poorly made and don’t work as advertised.

Does the wearer have hearing system distortion? Some people, especially with a history of noise exposure, have hearing loss with sound processing damage where sound becomes distorted or unclear while travelling up the hearing nerves to the brain. This happens after sound is amplified, meaning people feel their hearing aids don’t work because they still can’t hear or converse easily, especially in ambient environmental noise environments.

Are the hearing aids In-The-Drawer style? ITD style hearing aids worn only seldom or occasionally don’t help much. People with hearing loss need to practice hearing amplified sound again in their daily life. With regular use, people hear better with amplification than without, even in noisy or difficult listening situations.

The next time somebody says hearing aids don’t work, don’t forget there is often more to the story. Did the person get well manufactured hearing aids that meet their individual hearing and communication needs? Do they have realistic expectations of hearing aids? If not, a visit to a hearing healthcare professional could be helpful for problem-solving and guidance.

Jan L. Mayes is an international Eric Hoffer Award winning author in Non-Fiction Health. She is also a blogger and newly retired audiologist still specializing in noise, tinnitus-hyperacusis, and hearing health education. You can read more of Jan’s work at her site, www.janlmayes.com.

 

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.

The Soundproofist podcast looks at leaf blower noise

Photo credit: Timothy Valentine licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Two Quiet Coalition co-founders, Jamie Banks, MS, PhD, and David M. Sykes, are currently featured on the most recent Soundproofist podcast. The podcast focuses on leaf blower noise and what can be done about it. Listen here:

Meanwhile The Quiet Coalition’s Dr. Arline Bronzaft was featured recently on the Freakonomics radio show and podcast, which you can listen to here:

The Quiet Coalition is thrilled to be reaching new listeners.

How human-made noise affects animals

Photo credit: Matthis Volquardsen from Pexels

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

As I have written in previous posts, human-made noises have not only adversely affected the health and well being of people, but these noises also affect the well being of many species with whom we share this planet. Human-made noise forces the increased volume of urban bird calls, resulting in stress to some species, and deep-sea mining interests may have disrupted the lives of sea creatures for many years to come.

In her article for Psychology Today, Mary Bates informs us that noise pollution may hamper the communication of animals, “from insects to frogs to birds,” and this may have “potential consequences for mate attraction, territory defense and parent-offspring communication.” In support, she cites a new paper that reported the findings of a large number of studies that examined the impact of “anthropogenic noise,” or noise pollution, on animal communication. These studies found that animals had to make adjustments as a result of noise intrusions, and such adjustments could intrude on their existence. For example, when females had to call louder to attract males, these louder calls also attracted more predators, endangering the very lives of these animals.

The authors of the paper, Hansjoerg Kunc, Queen’s University Belfast, and his colleague Rouven Schmidt, conclude that it is essential for us to track noise pollution because the knowledge gained in such tracking will “ultimately determine the health of both ecosystems and organisms, including humans.” By including humans in this warning, they are cautioning us to protect our natural soundscapes not only to protect other species but ourselves as well.

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.

A COVID silver lining? Mask use in Korea reveals hearing loss

Photo credit: Jens-Olaf Walter licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report from The Korea Biomedical Review notes that mask wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic is making many Koreans recognize that they have hearing loss. We all use facial expressions and gestures to help us understand what others are saying, and many people unconsciously lip read as well. But when we are wearing masks, awareness of facial expression is limited to the eyes and forehead and it’s impossible to lip read, so we are left dependent only on our hearing to understand what others are saying.

South Korea had an effective government response to the COVID-19 pandemic, involving universal mask wearing, social distancing, an early testing program, and effective contact tracing with isolation of infected individuals. Thanks to these efforts, according to WorldOMeter South Korea has had only 667 cases of COVID-19 per million population and only 10 deaths per million population.

In contrast, in the U.S., the lack of an effective national response has led to 41,444 cases per million and 823 deaths per million.

To use absolute numbers, which may be easier for some to understand, the population of South Korea is approximately 51 million and that of the United States 330 million. Using an adjustment factor of 7, which actually overstates the adjustment for the respective population sizes, South Korea has had 34,652 cases of COVID-19 and 526 deaths. If South Korea had as many people as the United States, it would have had 242,564 cases of COVID-19, and 3682 deaths. The U.S. has unfortunately had almost 14 million cases and almost 275,000 deaths. The difference in case and death numbers is due to almost universal mask wearing in South Korea.

But universal mask wearing in South Korea made it hard for those with hearing loss to understand what others were saying, because they were deprived of the visual cues associated with speech.

And according to Prof. Moon Il-jung in the Otorhinolaryngology Department at Samsung Medical Center, more patients are coming to the hospital to receive hearing tests, with hearing aids prescribed for those who have hearing loss.

And that may be a rare silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud.

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.

London commuters dread Tube noise

Photo credit: Leon Warnking from Pexels

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

After my studies on the adverse impact of elevated train noise children’s classroom learning in a school in Upper Manhattan were published, the New York City Transit Authority became more involved in seeking out ways to reduce rail noise. I was asked to be a consultant to the Transit Authority in this undertaking. As I studied the rail noise in greater depth, I learned that rail noise could indeed be reduced, e.g. welded rail, rubber rail seats between rail and tracks, wheel truing, and track lubrication. What I also learned is the relationship between noise and proper maintenance of the system. To run a system with fewer breakdowns and disruptions, it is wise to keep the system properly maintained and noise should be viewed as a clue to potential breakdowns. Thus, keep the wheels trued and the tracks lubricated.

Now forty-five years after the publication of my first study on transit noise and learning, I read that Transport for London is being confronted by riders who say that the one aspect of their journeys on the Tubes that they dread is the noise. In April Curtin’s article for MyLondon, we learn that a research project recorded sound levels exceeding 105 decibels–that’s extremely high–on some of the journeys. As discussed in my earlier writings, this article notes that the rail squeak that passengers are complaining about causes damage to the tracks and trains. Not surprisingly, we are told, this adds to the maintenance bill.

In response to the noise complaints, Transport for London says it is carrying out regular maintenance work and “investing in new technologies to reduce noise on the Underground.” As the co-author of the book “Why Noise Matters,” written with four British co-authors, and as an individual who has examined transit noise for so many years, I offer my assistance to Transport for London as they explore ways to reduce rail noise.

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.

The loudest toys to avoid this holiday season

Photo credit: dolanh licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Every year for the last several years one publication or another, or these days one web site or another, has published a list of too-noisy toys that might harm a child’s hearing. This report from AZ BigMedia lists toys found to be too loud by the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing (ADCHH). The loudest toys made noise of 85 decibels (dB) or louder. The report quotes the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association as stating that 85 dB is the maximum volume a child should be exposed to for no more than eight hours a day.

The list of toys is a good one, but the advice about safe noise levels for children is not. As best as I can tell, there are no evidence-based safe noise exposure levels for children. No researcher has ever exposed children to loud noise and measured what happens to their hearing. That study just wouldn’t be ethical.

85 dB is derived from the 85 dBA (A-weighted decibels) recommended occupational noise exposure level, first calculated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in 1972 and revised in 1998. At 85 dBA, 8% of exposed workers will develop noise-induced hearing loss. An industrial-strength noise exposure level that doesn’t even protect all workers from hearing loss is far too loud for a child’s delicate ears, which must last her an entire lifetime.

I wrote about safe noise exposure levels for the public in the American Journal of Public Health and the difference between an occupational exposure level and one for the public was discussed in a NIOSH Science Blog post.

The best advice for parents and grandparents when selecting toys for their little darlings? If a toy sounds too loud, it is too loud. Protect their hearing and don’t buy it for them this holiday season.

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.