Public health

Is Japan really the world’s noisiest country?

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

If you’ve been to Japan, you’re likely as astonished as I am to learn that the World Health Organization recently reported Japan to be the world’s noisiest country.

Chiara Terzuolo, Japan Today, writes:

[T]he WHO recommends avoiding being exposed to noise over 53 decibels. The legal average limit in Japan is about 70, a number based on data 50 years out of date, according to Prof Matsui of Hokkaido University who spoke about the problem in an NHK feature on noise pollution in Japan.

Personally, I found major cities in Japan, like Tokyo and Hiroshima, much quieter (and more polite) than American cities like New York or Chicago. And their bullet-train stations are eerily quiet—the trains make NO noise at all, the station PA system speaks in polite whispers, and there are white-gloved attendants around urging people to stand back from the tracks because you might not notice an arriving train. So if Japan is noisy, I don’t remember it that way at all.

In fact, Japan and other Asian nations, like Korea, are far ahead of the U.S. in adopting and enforcing ‘quiet’ ordinances. Visiting there, I’ve seen noise barriers around highways that are 65 feet tall and they’re better at blocking noise from radiating into nearby neighborhoods and more attractive than the crude prison-like fences installed along U.S. highways by the Department of Transportation at a cost of millions of dollars per mile.

Nevertheless, if the World Health Organization’s report is right, it’s interesting proof that noise pollution is a very difficult problem to solve, as difficult as smog and second-hand smoke.

If that’s the case, then it will be a long, long time before we see much improvement in America—because we’ve barely begun to think about this problem.

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.

Lindbergh Foundation interviews “The Ruth Bader Ginsburg of noise”

Photo credit: Photo credit: Susan Santoro

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

The Lindbergh Foundation is run by aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh’s grandson, Erik, a prominent and outspoken activist for quieter, more efficient electric aircraft. It was my privilege several years ago to introduce Mr. Lindbergh to The Quiet Coalition co-founder, Dr. Arline Bronzaft, when we invited both to speak at a public outreach workshop on community noise.

If you know anything about Dr. Bronzaft, you know that she is a forthright, courageous, no-nonsense spokesperson who speaks truth to power and is passionately concerned about the effects of noise on people. So we’re thrilled to hear, in this interview, Mr. Lindbergh describe her as “the Ruth Bader Ginsburg of noise.”

Well-deserved and absolutely appropriate. Congratulations, Arline, for a well-deserved compliment! And thank you, Erik Lindbergh, for recognizing the contributions of this remarkable woman!

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.

What is a safe noise exposure level for the public?

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

What is a safe noise exposure level for the public?

That seems like an easy question, but the answer wasn’t obvious in 2014 when I became a noise activist, trying to make the world a quieter place. My interest was in preventing auditory disorders. (I’ve since learned that noise has non-auditory health effects, too, at lower noise levels, but my focus always is on auditory health.)

The internet didn’t help much. Most links found used the 85 decibel (dB) standard, because the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders stated, and still states, that “[l]ong or repeated exposure to sound at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss.” This didn’t seem right to me, because I have hyperacusis and sound levels much over 75 dB hurt my ears.

It took me a year to learn that the 85 dB standard comes from the NIOSH noise criteria (pdf) and isn’t a safe noise level for the public, and not for workers, either.

Now, when one searches for “safe noise level” or “safe noise level for the public,” the overwhelming majority of links cite my several publications on this topic. As I have written, the only evidence-based safe noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss is a time-weighted average of 70 dB for 24 hours, but for a variety of reasons the real safe exposure level has to be lower.

The 85 dB standard lives on, zombie-like, refusing to die, but at least accurate information about the safe noise level to prevent hearing loss is now widely accessible.

I hope accurate information about safe noise levels will empower the public to demand quiet, before we all lose our hearing.

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.

Urban noise is “the absolute scourge of our time”

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The Guardian recently published a fascinating article by Thomas McMullan in which he said that cities are louder than ever and noted that the poor suffer the most. That article got an enormous amount of attention and “prompted a huge response,” so there was a follow-up piece in which the newspaper shared some of the best responses.  While one of the respondents embraced urban noise saying that “cities are people and life and they make noise,” every other commenter disagreed, with one exclaiming that “[n]oise pollution is the absolute scourge of our time.”

Some noise is a necessary accompaniment to urban living, but excessive noise isn’t. And solutions are available if the political will exists. Namely, enforcement of existing noise ordinances, especially for vehicle exhaust noise, revision of building codes to require sound insulation and double-paned windows, and quieter sirens would be good first steps.

I believe that if enough people complain to their elected officials about urban noise, something can be done about it.

And something must be done about noise, because urban noise isn’t just a nuisance–in many cities it is loud enough to damage hearing, and the World Health Organization recognizes is as a major health hazard.

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 council considers helicopter ban

Photo credit: Matthis Volquardsen from Pexels

In a move that is sure to delight those of us who want sensible limits on unnecessary noise, three New York City council members have proposed a ban on helicopter flights over the city. Specifically, Council members Mark Levine, Helen Rosenthal, and Margaret S. Chin have introduced legislation that would ban all nonessential helicopter travel over the city. The proposal followed a frightening helicopter crash that occurred in June 2019, in which the pilot, who was not authorized to fly in limited visibility, was killed while attempting to land his helicopter during foul weather.

While the linked story suggests the council members’ focus is on safety concerns, group such as Stop the Chop have advocated for the end of unnecessary helicopter flights for security and health concerns, asserting that the flights are bad for the environment, bad for public health, and bad for New Jersey and New York residents who live in and around the flight paths. Making matters worse is that the vast majority of the flights are absolutely nonessential–Stop the Chop states that 97% of the 58,000 flights per year originating out of the city-owned Downtown Manhattan Heliport are tourist flights.

We hope that the full council votes in favor of banning nonessential helicopter flights, saving the lives of unsuspecting tourists and the health and sanity of every person who is exposed to the fumes and noise this unnecessary activity creates.

Quieter equipment aids landscape sustainability

Photo credit: Peter Dutton licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article in the Westerly Sun discusses a presentation The Quiet Coalition’s Jamie Banks, PhD, MSc, made to a group in Weekapaug, Rhode Island, on the environmental impact of gas-powered equipment, its effects on human health, and what can be done about it. Banks also serves as executive director of Quiet Communities, Inc.

In her presentation, Banks explained that commercial gas-powered lawn and garden equipment, like mowers and leaf blowers, not only produce “stressful noise pollution,” but also spew a rich mix of toxic chemicals and project particulate matter into the air.

So what can be done?

Banks suggests that quieter battery-powered landscape care equipment can aid landscape sustainability and prevents auditory damage and disruption of human activities. Says Banks, “battery-powered lawn and garden equipment, including equipment for use by professional landscapers, offers a solution to many of the hazardous side effects of gas-powered machines.”

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.

Noise or tinnitus causing sleep loss? There’s an app for that….

Photo credit: Alyssa L. Miller licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

The New York Times is published in one of the noisiest cities in the world, so it’s no surprise that some of their reporters—like everybody else living in New York City–have trouble sleeping and are looking for solutions. Some of those same reporters also suffer from tinnitus, often caused by exposure to loud noises.

Two New York Times articles explore smartphone-based apps that promise better sleep through mindfulness or meditation training. If this sounds fishy to you, suspend your disbelief because there’s quite a bit of research on this subject. In fact, the Veterans Administration’s National Center for Rehabilitative Auditory Research in Portland, Oregon recommends some of these approaches. That’s not surprising, as military veterans suffer disproportionately from hearing disorders like tinnitus owing to exposure to firearms and explosive devices. As a result, the Department of Defense and the Veteran’s Administration have spent quite a bit of effort on both prevention and treatment because tinnitus is one of the top two service-related disabilities, costing billions every year.

My point is this: getting a good night’s rest is essential to everyone’s health. If you live in a noisy or distracting environment, actually going to sleep and then sleeping soundly through the night may require some combination of the following three things:

  1. Good hearing protection, like a really good pair of earplugs or even sound-deadening ear-muffs;
  2. Some sort of continuous background sound-making device that plays soothing sounds like ocean waves or rainfall; and
  3. Some mindfulness training to help you get to sleep.

If you suffer from tinnitus, you may also want to look into the VA’s Tinnitus Retraining Therapy program, which teaches people to re-direct their attention away from the non-stop ringing and buzzing in their ears that is characteristic of tinnitus and focus on other subjects.

If you feel like experimenting, try some of the apps mentioned by the New York Times reporters and please tell us if they help.

In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI’s Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI’s Committee S123-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation’s 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.

Study urges efforts to prevent noise-induced hearing loss

This image is in the public domain

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report from Purdue University highlights research done there with the University of Rochester that shows noise-induced hearing loss has worse effects on hearing than hearing loss caused by age-related metabolic loss. Specifically, the researchers found that “noise trauma causes substantially greater changes in neural processing of complex sounds compared with age-related metabolic loss,” which the researchers think may explain why there are “large differences in speech perception commonly seen between people with the same clinically defined degree of hearing loss based on an audiogram.”

According to the CDC, noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable. In public health, prevention of disease is almost always better and cheaper than treatment of a disease or condition.  For hearing, natural hearing preserved into old age is much better and much cheaper than costly hearing aids.

So remember: if it sounds too loud, it IS too loud.  Avoid excessive noise exposure and use hearing protection 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.

13-year-old proves hand dryers hurt kids’ ears

Photo credit: Mr.TinDC licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Thanks to some noise contacts, I was aware of this study that appeared in the official publication of the Canadian Paedriatic Society, but I hadn’t written a blog post because the article is behind a pay wall. But now thanks to the New York Times, everyone can learn about this fascinating study done by 13-year-old Nora Keegan.

Keegan spent more than a year taking sound measurements in hundreds of public restrooms to prove that the noisy hand dryers that she and other children complained about to their parents were, in fact, dangerously loud. Uncertain with how the hand dryer companies determined their decibel ratings, Keegan tested them at varying heights, including childrens’ heights. After getting a bronze, then a gold, in school science fairs with her earlier studies, Keegan was encouraged to write a paper about her findings. And she did. Click the second link to learn more about how she conducted her study.

I was delighted to read about Keegan’s interest and dedication to her study, particularly since her research confirms what I have been saying for some time now: If it sounds too loud, it IS too loud!

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.

Noise can adversely affect human health

Photo credit: rawpixel.com from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

When a prominent public health leader like UCLA’s Jonathan Fielding, MD MPH MA MBA summarizes the adverse impacts of noise on health and quality of life, it appears that noise is finally getting the attention it deserves.

My only quibble with what Dr. Fielding wrote is that he states, “a few hours of exposure to 85 decibels noises will likely damage your hearing.” The World Health Organization actually recommends only one hour of exposure to 85 A-weighted decibels (dBA)* to prevent hearing loss. That’s because the only evidence-based safe noise exposure level to prevent noise-induced hearing loss is a time-weighted average of 70 decibels for 24 hours, and after one hour at 85 dBA it’s impossible to average 70 dB for the day.

Let’s hope that those in Congress and government offices in Washington, and at CDC headquarters in Atlanta, heed Dr. Fielding’s call for government action to make America quieter.

*A-weighting measures the frequencies heard in human speech.

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.