Quality of Life

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.

Who is to blame for noisy restaurants?

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Noisy restaurants seem to be in the news these days. Almost every week, The Quiet Coalition comes across another article or television report about them. This piece from the Daily Mail is one of the few that provides names and numbers–the names of the restaurants and actual decibel readings from a sound level meter–and the sound levels they reported were loud enough to damage hearing.

What can you do to protect yourself? You don’t need a sound meter to know if it’s too loud (although we encourage everyone to install one on a smart phone–very accurate ones are available). The auditory injury threshold is only 75-78 A-weighted decibels (dBA). If you have to strain to speak or to hear while trying to have a normal conversation at 3-to-4 feet distance–the usual social distance for speaking or dining in the U.S.–the ambient noise is above 75 dBA, and your hearing is being damaged.

And once it’s gone, the only remedy is hearing aids.

So who is to blame for noisy restaurants? This report from Australia doesn’t blame anyone in particular, but suggests the culprit is minimalist design trends. We would add that crowded dining areas, low ceilings, and, of course, background music turned up to rock concert levels do not help.

Before the mass adoption of the industrial look in restaurant design, restaurants used to be carpeted, with drapery covering the windows, upholstered banquettes lining the walls, and white tablecloths covering every table. One went to a restaurant to dine and to converse. It is obvious that design trends have changed dramatically over the last two decades or so. Newer restaurant designs with open kitchens that allow the clanging of pots and pans to be heard in the dining area and hard floor and wall surfaces (e.g., glass, metal, polished cement, and tile) that reflect rather than absorb sound are certainly part of the problem.

As a result, restaurant noise is now the leading complaint of diners in many cities, according to the 2016 Zagat annual survey, and just barely in second place nationally, slightly behind bad service. As the twelve-step programs might say: First, you have to accept that you have a problem.

The important thing is that the problem of restaurant noise is finally being recognized, and now that we know that restaurant noise is a problem, we can start doing something about it. Some have suggested avoiding noisy restaurants or walking out if the restaurant is too noisy. But that isn’t a realistic choice in most cities. If one did that, one would never go to a restaurant. Instead, ask the manager to turn down the volume of amplified music, and if he or she refuses, tell them that you are leaving and will never return, and that you will tell everyone you know to avoid the place. Tell your city council and mayor that you want quieter restaurants. And post accurate and detailed reviews on Yelp, Open Table, and social media. Let the restaurant owner or manager, and those who read restaurant reviews on social media, know that “the food was excellent, but the place was so loud that we are never going back.”

If enough of us complain and demand quieter spaces, then restaurateurs will have to respond. Or they can ignore us at their peril.

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.

Hearing loss is an occupational health hazard for musicians

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

It’s not surprising that hearing loss is an occupational health hazard for musicians, as highlighted in this recent report. After all, noise causes hearing loss. It doesn’t matter if the noise is from machinery in a factory, from a jet engine on the tarmac, or from loudspeakers at a rock concert. Whatever the source, the effect is the same.

And the type of music doesn’t matter, either, as noise-induced hearing loss is a problem for classical musicians, too.

The bottom line is this: hearing is precious. If hearing music is important to you–or hearing children or grandchildren speak, birds sing, whatever it is–protect your hearing.

How can you protect yourself? It’s easy. The auditory injury threshold is only 75-to-78 A-weighted decibels. That’s about the level at which ambient noise makes conversation difficult. If you are having a hard time having a conversation because of the ambient noise around you, it’s too loud. And if something sounds too loud, it IS too loud! Turn down the volume, leave the noisy place, always carry earplugs with you, and use them!

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.

Another adverse effect of traffic noise

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

New research in Denmark shows that people exercise less when they live near noisy roads. The researchers found that for every 10 decibel increase in traffic noise, people were 5% less likely to exercise.

In general, a few simple habits can have a dramatic effect on health and longevity:

  1. Don’t smoke
  2. Eat fruits and vegetables
  3. Maintain a healthy weight, and
  4. Exercise regularly.

Anything that discourages healthy habits–and traffic noise now seems to fall into this category–is bad for health.

And the reason why traffic noise seems to decrease exercise? It isn’t clear. It may be that traffic noise disrupts sleep, so people exposed to the noise just lack the energy to get moving, but whatever the reason this study provides yet another reason why cities must control traffic noise.

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.

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.

We can curse those who made us deaf

Photo credit: Thomas Leuthard licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

There is a high likelihood that a large percentage of Americans will suffer significant (25-40 decibel) noise-induced hearing loss as we age because we are exposed to too much noise.

Fortunately, as this lively video shows, we will still be able to curse those who made us deaf using American Sign Language.

WARNING: The language and gestures on this video are explicit. They are not appropriate for those under 18 years of age and may upset others. Definitely NSFW.

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.

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.

The NIH recognizes noisy restaurants are a problem

Photo credit: Alan Light licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

With this web content posted last year as part of its Dangerous Decibels program, the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), part of the National Institutes of Health, finally recognizes that restaurant noise is a problem. Unfortunately, NIDCD persists in stating that

Research shows that long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels can cause noise-induced hearing loss. Signs of having been exposed to too much noise include not hearing clearly or having ringing in your ears after leaving a noisy environment.

We disagree. By the time one can’t hear clearly or experiences tinnitus, it’s too late–permanent hearing damage has occurred. The damage occurs because 85 decibels is not a safe noise level for the public. As I wrote in the American Journal of Public Health, the only evidence-based safe noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss is 70 decibels time-weighted average for a 24-hour period. The 85 decibel standard NIDCD relies on is an occupational noise exposure level, and that standard fails to prevent hearing loss in all exposed workers. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health agrees, and the auditory injury threshold, discussed by Flamme, et al., is only 75-78 A-weighted decibels (dBA).

A simple rule to protect hearing is “if it sounds too loud, it IS too loud.” If you can’t carry on a normal conversation without straining to speak or to be heard, the ambient noise level is above 75 dBA (see figure D-1, “Information on Levels of Environmental Noise Requisite to Protect Public Health and Welfare with an Adequate Margin of Safety”) and auditory damage is occurring. And, unfortunately, many if not most restaurants are noisier than 75 dBA.

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.

The deafening killer….finally, an elected official gets it right

This photo has been released into the public domain by its author, Arpingstone.

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Councillor Adam Swersky, from the London Borough of Harrow, wrote this indictment of noise pollution in The New Statesman.

Finally, an elected official seems to understand that noise is a ubiquitous pollutant with adverse health impacts, and with special impacts on the less fortunate in society.

Since he sits on the borough council, he is in a position to do something about it, too.

American politicians, take note.

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.