Public health

Gordon Hempton launches Quiet Parks International

Photo credit: Jose Vega from Pexels

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

Many people know of Gordon Hempton’s fine work as an acoustic ecologist and ‘soundtracker’ and his efforts to establish the “One Square Inch of Silence” project in the Hoh Valley of Olympic National Park near of Seattle:

Now that work has been transformed into a U.S.-based global nonprofit organization called Quiet Parks International, and The Quiet Coalition co-founder Dr. Arline Bronzaft has agreed to serve on their advisory board. Congratulations to Hampton and his colleagues on this new start, another bold attempt to take human-caused noise pollution onto the global stage.

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 importance of reducing urban noise

Photo credit: Francesco Ungaro from Pexels

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

While the United Nations was formed after the Second World War to promote peace through diplomacy, agencies affiliated with the UN have been involved with other actions to enrich the lives of people worldwide. These actions include promoting mental and physical wellbeing, social justice, gender equity, child welfare, aging, crime prevention and control, and environmental health. To achieve these goals the UN has enlisted the services of behavioral scientists.

In June, the UN will celebrate its 75th anniversary, and it was, therefore, an appropriate time to release a book that examines the role of behavioral sciences in the workings of this organization. The book is titled “Behavioral Science in the Global Arena, Volume 1,” and its editors are Elaine Congress, Harold Takooshian, and Abigail Asher.

In the section of the book entitled “Supporting Environmental Health,” Melissa Search and I co-authored the chapter “Reducing Urban Noise.” With noise a growing international menace for cities worldwide, this chapter examines the effects of loud sounds and noise on hearing and overall physical and mental health. Strong research findings support the fact that urban dwellers universally are suffering from the harmful effects of noise. Although there have been actions taken in Europe, the U.S., and other countries to lessen noise, more still needs to be done to lower the decibel levels in our urban centers. The chapter also stresses the importance of enhancing quiet in our lives through urban green areas and parks. Quiet benefits health!

This book has also been published at a time when our world is coping with the coronavirus pandemic. Urban centers have reported less noise from construction, traffic, and nearby music establishments. Residents have also tuned in to birds signing, crickets chirpirng, and soft breezes. One hopes that the pleasures of these sounds, especially while experiencing anxiety and discomfort, will be remembered as we move forward to a time when urban dwellers will once again be engaged in activities that bring about higher decibel levels. Such memories of the good sounds around us might result in ways to lessen the din. Adversity can bring about creativity!

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.

How the lockdown allows us to hear nature

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

Dr. Richard leBrasseur, who studies the differences between urban and rural landscapes and the influences of these landscapes on human development and behavior, concludes his article “How COVID-19 shutdowns are allowing us to hear more of nature” by asking urban dwellers to go out onto their porch or balcony to listen to the “sounds of nature.” I live on the Upper East Side in Manhattan and did not need to go onto my terrace to hear the sounds of birds this morning. They awakened me at 6:40 a.m. as they did a few days ago. What a wonderful way to wake up on a street that is usually bustling with traditional loud urban sounds.

Dr. leBrasseur reports on sound measurements of urban and nature sounds taken before the pandemic and then after the pandemic changed our soundscapes. In his February readings in Truro, Nova Scotia, he recorded the sounds of cars, planes, barking dogs, etc. which were rated quite high on the decibel scale used to measure the loudness of sounds. But in April he was recording nature sounds in these same locations which were considerably lower on the decibel scale. While Dr. leBrasseur acknowledges that some people enjoy urban soundscapes, he points to the research that has found that these sounds can still have a negative effect on our health. On the other hand, he cites the research that has demonstrated the benefits of natural sounds to our health. These include “reduced heart rate, reduced levels of anxiety, increased positive emotions, overall wellbeing and increased productivity.”

Urban dwellers generally have to travel to quieter areas to enjoy the sounds of nature and reap their benefits. I wonder if the natural sounds that they are experiencing now can indeed bring them the comfort that is traditionally associated with such sounds. I ask this because the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has elicited feelings of stress and anxiety. Additionally, many urban dwellers report today that they miss the city sounds that were at one time viewed as disturbing. One cannot blame them for essentially “missing their old lives.”

For now, I agree with Dr. leBrasseur when he says we should go out and listen to nature in our neighborhoods. “It won’t last.”

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.

May is Better Hearing and Speech Month

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

As I have written previously, I’m not a big believer in special days or months. As far as I’m concerned, every day is World Hearing Day, every month is Better Hearing and Speech Month, and, of course, this month every day is Mother’s Day!

But I have also acknowledged that it helps to have a special day or month to celebrate something or someone and to remind us of important events or topics.

Thanks to our friends at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for all the helpful information they have prepared on protecting our hearing, which they are sharing with the public every month.

Please stay safe, both from COVID and from noise.

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.

Is the pandemic causing a reduction in noise pollution?

Photo credit: Eden, Janine and Jim licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

It is no longer surprising that writers have noticed the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a reduction in noise pollution. In her article “Is Coronavirus Reducing Noise Pollution,” Christine Ro points out the benefits of a less noisy world to the health and well-being of birds and sea creatures. Humans, she notes, will also experience less stress in this quieter world. The adverse impacts from transportation noise, which ordinarily impacts millions of people, has indeed lessened, although she does ask whether this stress will be offset by the anxiety associated with the pandemic.

Let us accept the advantages of less transportation noise to human health. If we do, then we may assume, as Ro does, that once this pandemic “passes” and modes of transportation are used again in greater number, road, rail, and aircraft noises will once again impact on nearby residents, as they did before. That said, it may take some time for transportation usage to increase to pre-pandemic levels, which may present an opportunity.

As Ro discusses in her article, there are ways to quiet road traffic. I can add that there are also ways to lessen rail and aircraft noise. I agree with Ro when she states that not enough noise-reduction policies have been implemented. I also agree when she wonders whether the positive effects of the less noisy environment now being experienced may lead to increased efforts to make the post-coronavirus world quieter. But that will be more likely if writers like Ro, who have shown an interest in noise pollution because of the current situation, continue to write about the hazards of noise pollution and advocate for programs that will lessen the noise for all species, including humans.

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.

Could noise be a risk factor for hypertension?

Photo credit: Kateryna Babaieva from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Could noise be a risk factor for hypertension? This fascinating study from Chengdu, China, suggests that the answer is yes. The study design is innovative. The investigators measured bilateral high frequency hearing loss (BHFHL) and blood pressure in 21,000 workers, with an average age of 40. Hearing loss was a proxy measure for occupational noise exposure. Workers with greater hearing loss, as measured by audiometric tests, had a greater risk of also having high blood pressure.

The study is an exploratory one, and it is cross-sectional, i.e., the workers were not followed for decades and the study is based on one-time measurements of hearing and blood pressure. Other factors known to be associated with hypertension, such as weight and alcohol consumption, were not documented. And only a proxy measure of occupational noise exposure, bilateral high frequency hearing loss, was used, rather than actual noise measurements in the workplace. But the number of workers studied was large enough to provide high statistical significance, and the results were striking. As the researchers noted, “subjects having mild and high BHFHL had a higher hypertension risk of 34% and 281%, respectively (both P<0.001). Dose-response relationship between BHFHL and hypertension was found in both males and females.”

Studies done in the U.S. also show a correlation between occupational noise exposure and hypertension. The Chinese study may show a stronger relationship between occupational noise exposure and hypertension because workplace protections and their enforcement may be less stringent in China than in the U.S.

What are the implications of this study for public health? More than 100 million Americans have high blood pressure. At least two studies show that noise exposure in everyday life is great enough to cause hearing loss. Is it also great enough to contribute to the epidemic of hypertension in the U.S.?

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.

Rethinking sirens during the pandemic

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

Councilperson Helen Rosenthal and several other members of the New York City Council have introduced legislation to alter the tones of the city’s ambulance and vehicle sirens so that they would be in line with those used in European countries. The European sirens, we have been told, are just as effective but not as shrill as the city sirens that are  offensive and disturbing to New York City residents. In response to residents living near Mount Sinai hospital who have complained about the hospital’s sirens for years, the hospital did play different sirens at a community meeting last year and, indeed, the European ‘high-low’ tone was judged the least offensive.

Yet, the intrusive sirens continue to be used in New York City. This despite the fact, as Julia Vitullo-Martin writes in her article “Sirens and Suffering: Rethinking the Soundtrack of the Coronavirus Crisis, ”that these excessively loud sirens are both a health risk to emergency responders themselves as well as nearby residents exposed to these loud sounds.”

The traditional argument for dangerously loud sirens has been the need to move traffic so that emergency vehicles can get to their destinations as quickly as possible. Yet, with the pandemic slowing city traffic considerably, why must New Yorkers be subjected to these? With so many people now confined to their homes, more New Yorkers have become aware of these “much too loud” sirens. In addition to being a health hazard before the pandemic, these frequent sirens have engendered even greater anxiety in New Yorkers who view them as reminders of the illnesses and deaths brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

Vitullo-Martin uses the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic to question the city’s justification in retaining these offensive blaring sirens. Why with traffic down, are the sirens still sounding like jet takeoffs? With fewer vehicles on the road, do you really need the blaring sirens to tell the cars and trucks to move over? Supposedly, there are protocols to direct drivers when to use full sirens. Vitullo-Martin suggests the pandemic might get city planners to rethink traffic patterns in a way that would make it less difficult for emergency vehicles to get to their destinations. And the City Council legislation on the high-low tone sirens may have a better chance of passing.

I know the coronovirus pandemic has been more than a horrific experience for New Yorkers but it is out of such experiences that new ideas to improve the health and well-being of citizens come forth. As Vitullo-Martin suggests, one such idea may lead to fewer health-hazardous emergency vehicle sirens.

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.

Takeways from a silent pandemic

Photo credit: Hakan Tahmaz from Pexels

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

The Quiet Coalition co-founder Arline Bronzaft, PhD, was interviewed by Newsday a few days ago. The long-time researcher and noise activist known for her work on noise and its impact on children’s education that began 50 years ago hopes humans around the world will learn a big lesson from this locked-down quiet period.

We all need to listen to nature! The rest of nature—the nonhuman parts—have been trying to tell us something for a long time and we just haven’t been able to hear it: when the noise stops, so does much of the air pollution we accepted as “normal.” The sky is bluer now, the air is breathable and sweeter, and we can hear birds singing—all because the dirty industrial processes that generate most of the noise are at a standstill.

Once this is over, can we hang onto some of those benefits? Is there a way to seize this moment to figure out how to lead quieter, less stressful, less polluting lives?

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.

Yet another Earth Day has passed, but marked by silence and solitude

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

I have mixed emotions about Earth Day every year, and this year was similar–except it was quieter since each of us marked the 50th Earth Day in pandemic-induced solitude and isolation. But this year is different, too.  We have been been thrust back two centuries to the astonishingly quiet, unpolluted time before the industrial age.

Amidst this pandemically induced silence, I continue to be exasperated that even now, the environmental movement ignores industrial noise pollution. Why is it that environmentalists avoid acknowledging two early successes of the environmental movement: the U.S. Noise Control Act (1972) and the U.S. Quiet Communities Act (1978)? It is exasperating that environmental leaders, year after year after year, avoid the environmental noise pollution issue as if they are somehow embarrassed by it.

Environmentalists simply fail to grasp two obvious facts:

1. Noise is a significant public health problem all by itself as clearly proven by abundant research.

2. Industrial noise—including jet engines, power plants, railway and roadway traffic noise, construction and landscape maintenance noise and even wind turbine noise are all sentinels, like “canaries in coal mines,” warning us all of dangerous industrial pollution in the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Why has no one ever been able to successfully make this case to environmentalists?

How can we make it now? Might they listen this time, now that we’ve all had our ears and eyes opened by the silence of COVID-19?

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.

Kids learn about noise and classroom learning from the experts

Photo credit: K.W. Barrett licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

Noises from overhead aircraft, as well as nearby roads and rail tracks, impede learning in classrooms. Since I was the author of two of the early studies investigating the effects of outside noises on classroom learning, a group of students in Sharon, Massachusetts asked me to assist them with their research project which involved taking sound level measurements on the streets near three schools in Boston. They wanted to “see how much noise kids are actually exposed to when inside schools.” Dr. Erica Walker, Boston University School of Public Health, and Herb Singleton, Cross-Spectrum Acoustics, Inc. were their primary advisors.

In addition to reporting on the sound levels near the schools, the student team surveyed a group of elementary and middle school students to learn how aware they were of noises in their schools. After concluding that ”noise pollution impairs learning in children and affects schools in city neighborhoods,” the student team then made some recommendations to lessen noise in schools.

While the research conducted by these students supported earlier findings and recommendations to lessen noise in schools, this project is worth noting because these young students became aware of noise impacts on their own classroom learning and then decided to explore further how they could help reduce noise pollution in their town’s schools. Hopefully, these students will continue their interest in the harmful effects of noise and will join efforts to reduce noise in our overall environment. Their conclusion–“But the best solution is…Being Noise Aware”–makes me think they will.

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.