Public health

Finding it hard to escape noise? This could be why:

In “A Map of Noisy America,” CityLab writes about the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ (BTS) new National Transportation Noise Map, which shows that “more than 97 percent of the U.S. population has the potential to be exposed to noise from aviation and Interstate highways at levels below 50 decibels or roughly comparable to the noise level of a humming refrigerator.”  The map also reveals that “[l]ess than one-tenth of a percent of the population could potentially experience noise levels of 80 decibels or more.” So that’s not bad, right? Well, yes and no.

CityLab notes that “noise doesn’t have to be particularly penetrating to be a public health menace,” adding that the World Health Organization “set a benchmark of recommended exposure to night sounds for Europeans” at 40 decibels.  Why so low?  Because studies have shown that sleep schedules are interrupted by noise over 42 decibels, “[e]xposure to road noise above 50 decibels (comparable to a quiet office) has been associated with higher risks of heart attack,” and noise has been linked to obesity and other maladies.

So check out the map and see how your community fares, but keep in mind that this map only looks at aviation and highway noise.  Next up?  The BTS states that “future versions of the National Transportation Noise Map are envisioned to include additional transportation noise sources, such as rail and maritime.”  We’ll keep you posted.

Another Silent Spring

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” described the harmful effects of insecticides and herbicides on birds, beneficial insects, animals, and humans.  Her book helped start the environmental movement. For too many people, this will be another silent spring, caused not by a dearth of birds but because people can’t hear birds sing. They have hearing loss from another environmental pollutant, noise.

Carson described how nature’s balance controlled pest species naturally, and how these species became problems only when humans changed the environment. She noted the difference between apparent short-term safety of agrichemicals and longer-term danger. People could get sprayed with pesticides or even ingest them without apparent immediate harm, with cancer and birth defects coming later.

If Carson were alive today, she might write about noise pollution, which interferes with animal feeding, communication, mating behaviors, and navigation in forests, fields, and oceans, and causes hearing loss and other medical problems in humans.  In nature’s quiet, animals developed exquisite hearing to find food or avoid being eaten. An owl can find a mouse under a foot of snow, and zebras can hear lions approaching in the veldt.

Humans are also born with excellent hearing.  Brief exposure to loud noise usually doesn’t cause obvious auditory damage in humans, but longer or repeated exposure does. The relationship between noise and hearing loss was first noted in medieval times in bell ringers and miners, then in boilermakers during the industrial revolution.  Noise wasn’t a widespread problem, and except in large cities life was usually quiet.

Industrialization, mechanization, and urbanization made life noisier.  Noise was recognized as a public health hazard in the early days of interstate highways and jet travel, but was also considered an environmental pollutant. In 1972 Congress passed the Noise Pollution and Abatement Act, empowering the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish noise standards and require noise labeling for consumer and industrial products.

During the Reagan administration, however, Congress defunded EPA noise control activities. Little has been done since to control noise, and our country has gotten noticeably louder. Sound levels of 90-100 decibels or louder are reported in restaurants, clubs, retail stores, movie theaters, gyms, sports events, concerts, and parties, from sirens, vehicles, landscape maintenance equipment, and construction, and for those using personal music players.

The National Institutes of Health states that prolonged exposure to noise at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. This is misleading, because no exposure time is given and hearing damage occurs at much lower levels. The 85-decibel standard is an occupational noise exposure standard, not a safe noise level for the public.. The EPA adjusted the occupational standard for additional noise exposure outside the workplace to calculate the noise level for preventing hearing loss to be a daily time-weighted average of only 70 decibels.

Hearing is the social sense, required for spoken communication. About 40 million American adults age 20-69 have noise induced hearing loss, half of them without noisy jobs. Why is this happening? They are exposed to loud everyday noise.  Cumulative noise exposure eventually causes hearing loss, affecting 25% of those in their 60s, half in their 70s, and 80% in their 80s, and is correlated with social isolation, depression, dementia, falls, and mortality. Due to denial, stigma, and cost only 20% of older Americans with hearing loss acquire hearing aids, after an average seven-year delay, and 40% of people with hearing aids don’t use them much, largely because hearing aids don’t help users understand speech well in noisy environments.

Preventing noise-induced hearing loss is simple: avoid loud noise. If it sounds too loud, it is too loud. Free or inexpensive smart phone sound meter apps make it easy to measure sound levels, but if one can’t converse without straining to speak or to be heard, ambient noise is above the auditory injury threshold of 75-78 decibels and auditory damage is occurring.

A quieter world is easily attainable. Whisper-quiet dishwashers, cars with quiet interiors and exhausts, the Airbus A380, and a few quiet restaurants and stores prove this.   Effective noise control technologies have long existed, including noise reduction via design and material specifications and sound insulating, isolating, reflecting, diffusing, or absorbing techniques.  Indoors, all that may be necessary is turning down the background music volume, which costs nothing.

In the 1950s and 1960s, half of all American men smoked and public spaces and workplaces were filled with tobacco smoke. When research showed that tobacco smoke caused cancer and heart disease, governments restricted smoking, leading eventually to today’s largely smoke-free society. Smokers can still smoke, but can’t expose others involuntarily to their smoke.

Noise causes hearing loss. Governments should set and enforce indoor and outdoor noise standards, to reduce each person’s daily noise dose. Adults have the right to make and listen to all the noise they want, but not where others can hear them. If we can breathe smoke-free air, we can make a quieter world, so future generations won’t have to endure another silent spring.

Dr. Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area.  He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association and is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council and 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.

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

What’s the difference between noise and sound?

By Daniel Fink, MD

One of the heated discussions that sometimes occurs among those of us concerned about noise is the use of the terms “noise” and “sound.” Some people insist that we hear noise but measure sound. Others say the terms can be used interchangeably.

The word “noise” means “unwanted sound,” with an implication of being bothersome. One dictionary definition of noise is, “a sound, especially one that is loud or unpleasant or that causes disturbance.”   “Sound,” on the other hand, implies meaning, “a particular auditory impression.”

Nina Kraus, Professor of Communication Sciences, Neurobiology, and Otolaryngology at Northwestern University, has written an intriguing article for Scientific American that discusses new research that shows that our brains can actually tell the difference between noise and sound. Studies of brain waves, done at Northwestern, show that sound is understood by the brain while noise merely disrupts it.  And noise not only interferes with function, it can actually damage the brain:

Noise is more pernicious than an in-the-moment nuisance. Even a modest level of noise, over a long enough period of time (e.g. beeping garbage trucks, hair dryers, air conditioners), can cause damage to the brain networks that extract meaning from sound. Many of us don’t even realize our brains are being blunted and our thinking impeded by this invisible force.

So what can we do to protect our brains from damaging noise?  We can’t shut out all sound, because “the absence of meaningful sound also leaves a mark on the ability to process sound.”  Dr. Kraus adds that “there are distinct ways to tone and hone your listening brain.”  Namely:

You can learn a second language. The challenge of juggling two languages bolsters the auditory system and redounds to improvements in cognitive functions such as attention.

Another way to exercise your auditory brain is to play a musical instrument. This has a huge payoff cognitively and emotionally for children and adults alike. A few years of playing an instrument while in school sharpens the auditory system and can benefit language development in children. And this benefit lasts a lifetime.

Fascinating!  Even more supporting evidence for the goal of The Quiet Coalition: to make the world quieter, one decibel at a time.

Dr. 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 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.

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

Noise, the “ignored pollutant.”

“The sonic backdrop to our lives is increasingly one of unwanted technospheric noise,” writes Paul Mobbs for the Ecologist.  Mobbs, an independent environmental researcher and author, explores the sounds of nature and the toll that noise takes “on our health, wellbeing and quality of life.”  He writes about a ritual he has engaged in from since before his teens, where a few times a year he goes for a walk “well before the dawn, in order to listen to the ‘dawn chorus.'” “Over that period,” notes Mobbs, “there’s been one inescapable change in the countryside around my home town of Banbury – noise.”

On his recent walk, Mobbs’ objective was to reach Salt Way, an old Roman salt route fringing the south-western quadrant of Banbury. “Due to its age Salt Way has exceptionally dense, wide and species-rich ancient hedgerows which demarcate it from the surrounding fields,” which Mobbs asserts is “[p]erfect for listening to birds.” Except that morning a slight breeze was wafting the sound of a large motorway that was over 2 1/2 miles away.  Reflecting on this walk, Mobbs examines lost tranquility and noise as a nuisance, and introduces us to ecopsychology as he ponders “the fundamental psychological human dependence upon the natural environment.”  It’s a fascinating piece that really should be read in its entirety.  Click the first link to do that.

 

Will the Supreme Court take on airport noise?

Photo credit: Matthew Grapengieser

East Hampton Petitions U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Airport Noise Case. Beth Young, East End Beacon, reports that East Hampton Town filed a petition for writ of certiorari asking the Supreme Court to overturn an appeals court decision on the town’s proposed airport noise regulations “that would rob East Hampton and thousands of other local airport sponsors of their ability to manage their airport, in the best interests of their residents.”  Young writes that in April 2015 the town adopted two local laws that established year-round curfews–a mandatory nightime curfew and an extended curfew on noisy aircraft–and “also enacted a third law imposing a one-trip-a-week restriction on noisy aircraft.”

The laws were challenged by “a group of aviation advocates.”  The district court upheld the two curfews but “issued a preliminary injunction against the one-trip-per week limit.”  On appeal, the Second Circuit issued a preliminary injunction blocking all three three local laws.  According to Young, “[t]he town maintains it has the right to exert local control over its airport after not taking federal funds for upkeep of the airport for several years.”  Said Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell in a press release Monday afternoon:

We followed the FAA’s advice and elected to forgo federal funding so that we could protect our residents. We engaged in a lengthy public process to identify meaningful but reasonable restrictions, and the District Court agreed that we met that test. But, with the stroke of a pen, the appeals court decision has federalized our airport and stripped us – and the thousands of similarly situated airports – of the ability to exert local control. We cannot let that decision stand.

The town filed its petition on March 6th, and the response is due on April 5th. In the event that the Supreme Court rejects the town’s petition, it will pursue other avenues for relief. Said East Hampton Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez,”[t]he town board is pursuing all avenues for redress – both in the courts and in Congress – and we will continue the fight until we regain local control of East Hampton Airport.”

Could post-Brexit UK see a reduction in noise pollution?

Photo credit: (Mick Baker)rooster

Arline Bronzaft, PhD, a founding member of The Quiet Coalition, has reviewed a recently released ebook (pdf), “The Noise Climate–Post Brexit,” by John Stewart, Nigel Rodgers, Henry Thoresby, Val Weedon, and Francis McManus, for The Quiet Coalition blog. Dr. Bronzaft co-authored “Why Noise Matters” (Earthscan, 2011) with Stewart, Rodgers, Weedon, and McManus. That book examined the adverse impacts of noise on mental and physical health and questioned why governments failed to implement policies to abate noise in light of strong evidence supporting the noise/health link and the availability of noise abatement measures.

In “The Noise Climate–Post Brexit,” writes Dr. Bronzaft, the authors address noise abatement with some specificity and posit that after Brexit the UK could respond to noise in a way that leads to a real reduction in noise pollution. They assert that “even though the European Union (EU) took some steps to identify sources of noise (mainly by asking its members to periodically assess the noise levels in their respective countries), it did not take the next essential step–outlining ways to alleviate the noise.” Dr. Bronzaft says that the book has an optimistic outlook, which was mirrored in a private conversation that she had with John Stewart. His optimism rests on the belief that once the UK’s ability to regulate noise is no longer tied to EU oversight, the possibility exists that the government will focus on noise abatement and employ methodologies to evaluate the abatement measures.

At the end of her conversation with John Stewart, Dr. Bronzaft wished him well and told him that she would be reflecting on how the newly appointed head of the U.S. EPA, Scott Pruitt, would be addressing the noise issue in the U.S. “At this point,” said Dr. Bronzaft, “John wished me ‘good luck.’”

Good luck to us all.

Hearing loss may double in the U.S. by 2060

Photo credit: Thomas Widmann

CBS News reports on a new study that concludes that millions of Americans face the prospect of losing their hearing as they age. The study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University estimates that “[a]mong American adults 20 and older, hearing loss is expected to increase from 44 million in 2020 (15 percent of adults) to 73.5 million by 2060 (23 percent of adults),” with the greater increase among older Americans. As a result, “there will be an increased need for affordable interventions and access to hearing health care services.”  Says lead study author Adele Goman, “[h]earing loss is a major public health issue that will affect many more adults,” and “to address this issue, novel and cost-effective approaches to hearing health care are needed.”

Or perhaps prevention would be a better tactic?

Dr. Debara Tucci, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery, would agree. She tells CBS News that “people aren’t doomed to lose their hearing as they age.” “The most common cause of hearing loss is prolonged exposure to loud noise,” adds Dr. Tucci, “which includes loud music and a noisy workplace.”  Prevention, then, should be a rallying call among the medical profession, particularly public health officials.  This is especially important since the litany of horribles that befalls older adults who suffer hearing loss goes well beyond difficulty hearing.  The list includes: higher incidences of depression and anxiety, higher rates of hospitalization and of falls, and even “evidence of an association between hearing loss and mental decline.”

Coupled with the recently released and updated information concerning hearing loss from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this study is a wake-up call to the medical and audiology professions and the public. Simply put, there is a low-cost and 100% effective way to tackle noise-induced hearing loss–preventing it from occurring in the first instance.

 

 

 

Do We Hear too Much Noise Every Day?

Dr. Daniel Fink believes the answer is yes. Noted noise activist, Daniel Fink, MD, Founding Chair of The Quiet Coalition, writes about his thesis that the general public is exposed to entirely too much damaging noise every day. He notes that noise is a public health hazard, yet the federal government, which adopts standards to protect the public for food, water, and motor vehicles and makes recommendations or guidelines for dietary intakes of vitamins, salt, and sugar, has issued no federal standard regulating noise exposure or recommending noise limitations for the public.  In his piece, Dr. Fink describes his quest to find the noise level that will protect hearing, and he reveals how a recent important but ignored study has confirmed his suspicions that hearing damage can occur at lower decibel levels than previously suspected.

Click the link above to read more about Dr. Fink’s mission to warn medical professionals, the government, and the public about the dangers of noise and how we can protect our hearing.

Accommodation for autistic customers gaining steam in the UK

Photo Credit: Clive Darra

Tesco trialling a ‘quiet hour’ to help autistic customers do their shopping. Maya Oppenheim and Katie Forster, The Independent, write about Tesco’s pilot scheme, which it is trialing at one of its locations for six weeks on Saturday mornings. If the trial is successful, the quiet hour will be rolled out across Tesco stores nationwide.  What will Tesco be doing to make the shopping experience more tolerable for autistic customers? “The trial includes a wide range of measures to improve the browsing and paying experience for autistic customers such as dimmed lights and quieter tannoys [loudspeaker systems].”

Tesco is the largest grocery chain in the UK, and it also has stores in 12 countries across Asia and Europe. If the pilot scheme is successful and Tesco implements a quiet hour on a larger scale, this could be a significant victory for autistic and noise sensitive people.

Link via @QuietEdinburgh.

 

Have a friend or family member who is showing signs of hearing loss?

In “Hearing loss: Listening to the signs,” Treva Lind, The Spokesman Review, writes about the 37.5 million Americans who have some degree of hearing loss, focusing on the baby boomers who are 20 to 25% of that population.  Lind states that “[t]he American Speech-Language Hearing Association recommends that people age 50 and older have a hearing test every three years.”  She sits in on a hearing exam for 67-year-old Dale Fowler, who came to the University Hearing and Speech Clinic in Spokane, Washington to see if he needed a hearing aid, a visit scheduled at the urging of family members.  Fowler’s exam revealed that he “had some minor hearing loss at high frequencies in one ear, but it wasn’t enough to warrant a hearing aid.”  Fowler’s audiologist, Barbara Peregoy, said that his result was “common among baby boomers.”

Peregoy said that baby boomers often fall into a “gray area,” where they don’t yet need hearing aids but still have some minor hearing loss.  She then explained why people who need hearing aids don’t get them right away (cost, denial, vanity, or fear of appearing older) and the consequences of not addressing hearing loss, noting that hearing loss is a risk factor for dementia.  As for her patient Dale Fowler, although he left without a hearing aid, he did not leave empty-handed–Peregoy handed him a list of good communication skills to help him deal with his minor hearing loss.

Click the link above to read the whole piece, including Barbara Peregoy’s “Ten commandments for good communication skills.”