Quality of Life

Hearing noise? Here’s how to find out where it’s coming from

Photo credit: bruce mars from Pexels

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

The Quiet Coalition recently received an inquiry from a woman who said she hears “a nearly imperceptible high-pitched sound” in her living space. She states that she can hear the sound, but her partner insists there is no sound. “Could a smartphone-based sound-meter app isolate and identify this sound?” she asked, adding “if so, which one do you recommend?”

First, I must note that the fact that this woman hears noise but her partner does not means nothing at all. Her partner could simply have much less sensitive hearing!

We at The Quiet Coalition agree that the best step is to try to measure the sound. There are free or inexpensive sound meter apps that you can install on your smartphone, so start there. Some are better than others, but thankfully, experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have tested and rated smartphone sound-meter apps, which we reported on last year.

But a smartphone app may not be sensitive enough to pick up the sound. What should you do if this is the case? The only alternative could be to find an acoustics engineer to visit your residence and use professional equipment to identify the noise and then help you identify the source. That person can also suggest some ways to address the problem—which could be a neighbor’s electronics. The National Council of Acoustical Consultants offers advice on how to select a professional, licensed acoustical engineer.

There is, however, another possibility that must be considered: hearing a high-pitched sound that no one else hears COULD mean that you have a hearing disorder called tinnitus or an acute sensitivity to sounds called hyperacusis. Tinnitus can be identified by first finding a truly quiet place, such as a library, or on a weekend retreat in the countryside, to see if you still hear the noise when you are away from the circumstances where you are aware of the sound.

40 million Americans have tinnitus (myself included), so it’s quite common. And many of us spent years assuming that the “background noises” we heard were actually coming from the environment and that everybody heard the same thing!

So we recommend that you pursue both of these steps, because exposure to noise can be stressful, can cause sleep loss, and can have other health effects.
First try to determine where an unseen source of high-pitched sound in your environment is coming from. If the sound cannot be isolated, then consider that the cause of the sound could be tinnitus or another hearing disorder that should be attended to.

Frankly, the best result would be that there really is an unseen source of high-pitched sound in the immediate environment. Why? Because that can be fixed once the source is identified. But tinnitus cannot be cured, though there are techniques for managing it—which include avoiding the kinds of exposures that may have caused it in the first place. And know that the onset of tinnitus can be quite sudden.

To learn more about tinnitus check out the American Tinnitus Association‘s website and the Clinical Practice Guideline for Tinnitus published in 2014 by the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery.

In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, American National Standards Institute Committee S12, Workgroup 44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group—a partner of the American Hospital Association. He is the lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), a contributor to the National Academy of Engineering report “Technology for a Quieter America,” and to the US-GSA guidance “Sound Matters”, and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He recently retired from the board of directors of the American Tinnitus Association. A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Do we have a right to live in a quiet community?

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Do people have a right to live in a quiet community? Trevor Hancock, of the Times Colonist, thinks so, and so do I.

Hancock’s article discusses community noise, and highlights The Quiet Coalition’s Antonella Radicchi, PhD, who spoke in November 2018 at the Acoustical Society of America’s meeting in Victoria, BC, Canada, about her Hush City app.

In the U.S., the Noise Control Act of 1972 “establishes a national policy to promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health and welfare.”

The Environmental Protection Agency was tasked by Congress with the responsibility to make this happen. Unfortunately, in the Reagan era Congress defunded EPA’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control, and the country has gotten much noisier since then.

But it is now clearly known that noise is a health and public health hazard, causing hearing loss and other auditory disorders and non-auditory disorders including heart disease, stroke, and death.

We hope this knowledge will empower the public to demand quiet, just as the knowledge that secondhand smoke was a health hazard empowered the public to demand smoke free spaces.

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.

Embracing stillness

NBC Left Field interviews Steve Orfield, owner/operator of an anechoic chamber that the Guinness Book of World Records once named as “the quietest place on earth.”  Orfield talks about the importance of silence, noting that “the more perceptual stimulus you have, the less you are able to think clearly.” In the end, Orfield observes that we spend most of our energy trying to entertain ourselves until we go to bed, and concludes “if you look at all the things we spend money on and all the things we think we need, what’s the cost of peace?”

It’s a fascinating interview and well worth your time:

Is Your Noise Making Me Fat?

Photo credit: Yukari

By Daniel Fink, M.D.

Is your noise making me fat?  That may seem like a silly question to ask, but there is strong scientific evidence that traffic noise causes obesity.  More specifically, increased traffic noise–whether from highways, airplanes, or trains–is strongly correlated with central obesity.  Central obesity (or “truncal obesity”) is in turn linked with increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, and cardiac disease leading to increased mortality.

Why would noise cause obesity?  The auditory system evolved from vibration sensing mechanisms in primitive organisms which were used to sense predators, or by predators to find food.  Noise perception remains a major warning system, even in mammalian species.  Except for fish, most animals above the phylum Insecta close their eyes when they sleep but cannot close their ears, except for some which swim or dig.  Noise at levels not loud enough to cause hearing loss in humans interferes with sleep, causing a rise in stress hormone levels. These in turn alter carbohydrate and fat metabolism, leading to fat deposition. And that can cause diabetes and high blood pressure, which in turn cause heart disease.

A study published in 2015 showed a clear association between noise exposure and central obesity.  Another study published that year showed that noise caused increased heart disease and death.

And 100 million Americans are exposed to noise levels loud enough to cause these problems.

There is probably nothing specific about traffic noise that makes it more likely to cause health problems than any other source of noise, except, perhaps, the factor of unanticipated noise may be important.  It’s just easier to study the effects of traffic noise on humans than asking thousands of people to use personal sound monitors for long periods of time and then collecting and analyzing those data.  Noise is noise.

It’s obviously difficult to measure the non-auditory health impacts of everyday noise exposure–in the streets, in restaurants and stores, at sports events, at concerts–on an individual, but noise has powerful physiologic effects.

So as both noise levels and obesity levels rise in the United States, the answer to the question, “Is YOUR noise making ME fat?” may be “Yes!”

What can we do? For those living near highways, airports, or railroad tracks, double pane windows and wall and attic insulation may provide some protection.  But the best approach to noise is to limit it at its source, which will require political pressure to get laws passed to require quiet, especially nighttime quiet.

After the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control was defunded 35 years ago (pdf), noise is largely a local government issue.  So if you want change, you have to speak up for yourself.  One easy step is to look at your local government’s website to see if noise is identified as a constituent issue.  If not, contact your local government representative and ask to speak to him or her about noise problems in your neighborhood or around your workplace.  In addition, an internet search should reveal whether your community has a group that is organized to fight noise in your town (click this link for a map of noise activist and quiet advocacy organizations).  Find out if they are active and go to a meeting to see what they are doing.  If politicians see that an issue is important to constituents, it is in their best interest to address that issue it they want to be re-elected.  If they ignore it, they can be replaced.  An active constituency ensures a responsive politician, at least on the local level.

Noise is omnipresent and insidious.  Because it’s everywhere, people assume that it must be tolerated and cannot be regulated.  But when air pollution became so noticeable and obviously unhealthy that it couldn’t be ignored, government responded with forceful legislation.  As a result, our air is cleaner today than it was in 1970America has gotten noisier and hearing loss in on the increase.  As with air pollution, we need robust government action to regulate noise.  If you care about your health and the health of your family, push back against noise, demand action, and join your neighbors to promote a peaceful, quiet, and healthy environment.

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.

Yes. The answer is yes.

The battleground.

And the question is: Are noise-filled carriages bad for your health? Hannah Jane Parkinson, The Guardian, is righteously appalled about a bone-headed idea floated by UK railway company South Western Railways which is considering getting rid of quiet carriages.  For some of us–raises hand as high as one can–quiet cars on Amtrak and state-run transit are the one of the few saving graces of an increasingly overused, underfunded public transit system here in the U.S. So reading that South Western Railways may kill quiet carriages not due to lack of interest but because “[t]he rise of mobile phones, loud music players and a general lack of etiquette mean that quiet zones are now virtually unenforceable,” is an absolute outrage.

Parkinson writes that some people think that quietness is overrated [Ed: monsters!] and says that “[p]sychotherapist and writer Philippa Perry suggests that we are becoming frightened of quietness, possibly as a result of technology.” But Parkinson sides with those of us who just want a moment that isn’t filled with layers of unavoidable sound, even suggesting prison sentences for the sound-loving louts who would rob the rest of us of just a few seconds of peace:

Seven years. That’s the minimum prison sentence that should apply to people on public transport who listen to music through their phone speakers (also known as “sodcasting”) – with two years for banal phone conversations that never end.

We agree, and would suggest similar sentencing guidelines for people wearing headphones who sing along, badly, to whatever they are listening to and those who set their phone volume to 11 and engage the tapping sound on their phone keyboards.

In the end, though, we can’t and shouldn’t avoid all sound, but the artificial sounds imposed on us by marketing miscreants and social louts can be controlled. Instead of getting rid of quiet cars on trains, why not make them all quiet except for one loud car for the uncaring and boorish? Tired of trying to eat a meal in peace only to have some miscreant spend his or her entire meal shouting into their smart phone? Interpose yourself into the conversation by offering unsolicited advice or agreeing with the unseen person on the other end. And refuse to give a dime of encouragement to the amateur “entertainers” who leap onto your subway car just as the doors close, armed with a boom box or bongos–yes, really–with the intent of destroying your sanity for the next three minutes.

People have begun to accept that noise is normal and that wanting quiet is some quirky affectation. But noise isn’t normal and should not be the default. We need to push back against the bad behavior of the noise makers and reclaim our public spaces.  So demand more quiet cars. Ask someone to stop shouting into their phone.  And know you are not alone.

Chronic noise exposure linked to heart disease, stroke

Photo credit: G.M. Briggs

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

In 2017, research done at Massachusetts General Hospital reported that stress caused activation of the amygdala, a part of the brain involved with emotions, and this in turn was correlated with vascular inflammation and increased rates of cardiovascular disease and death. But to my knowledge, no one had yet linked stress caused by transportation noise directly to increased cardiovascular risk.

At the recent American Heart Association meeting, however, researchers also from Massachusetts General Hospital presented information to make this direct connection.

The adverse effects of transportation noise on health have been reviewed before, but the new report shows yet another mechanism for these adverse effects.

As Mathias Basner, MD MSc, president of the International Commission on the Biological Effects of Noise, wrote in 2016, “[t]he overwhelming majority of noise effect researchers today accept that there is a causal relationship between environmental noise exposure and increased cardiovascular risk.”

This new report is another piece of evidence to support Basner’s statement.

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.

Motorcycle noise is not a first amendment right

Photo credit: Pulicciano licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This story by NPR discusses what will be the last Rolling Thunder motorcycle ride in the nation’s capital. The Rolling Thunder motorcycle ride first took place in 1988, an excuse to ride loud motorcycles through Washington, D.C. to honor veterans and troops killed in action, and to put pressure on the government to do more to find those still missing. The organizers of the Rolling Thunder ride will be organizing their last event in Washington D.C. this coming Memorial Day, 2019. After that, they will celebrate local and regional motorcycle rides but won’t have an organized ride in D.C. because “the event had become too costly and that federal agencies were making it overly difficult to organize.”

A Pentagon spokesperson said, “[t]he department supports the peaceful, lawful exercise of American citizens’ First Amendment rights, and remains focused on ensuring the safety and security of the demonstrators and the Pentagon Reservation. The department is prepared to support the 2019 Rolling Thunder ride, as we have for the last 31 years.”

Some might interpret this statement to mean that the Pentagon supports citizens riding noisy motorcycles as an exercise of their free speech. I don’t think this is what those who wrote and passed the First Amendment meant. And I don’t think this is what the Pentagon means, either.

I’m a doctor, not a constitutional lawyer, but I can read the Constitution as well as anyone else. The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Honoring veterans and pressuring the government to find those still missing action, and complaining about restrictions on a large, noisy motorcycle event are examples of protected free speech. Motorcycle noise is not.

States clearly have a legal right to regulate motorcycle noise, and according to the American Automobile Association, many do, even if state and local police agencies are reluctant to enforce these laws.

And there’s a federal law as well, namely transportation noise emission regulations. The law is very detailed, with different decibel levels depending on the engine size and purpose of the motorcycle (street use or off-road use) but 80 decibels is a common limit. Many if not most motorcycles exceed this limit.

Motorcycle riders may be a powerful constituency, but they are a minority. Their right to make noise stops at our ears.

If enough citizens exercise our First Amendment rights to complain to elected officials and police authorities, the laws will be enforced and we will have a quieter world.

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.

How to protect your hearing at holiday parties

Photo credit: Maurício Mascaro from Pexels

by G.M. Briggs

British charity Action on Hearing is advising Brits to protect their hearing this holiday by donning earplugs before going to holiday parties.  I agree.  At a recent holiday party, these came in handy:

Photo credit: Quiet City Maps

Ah, the joy of musician’s earplugs.  Not cheap at $250 (your price may vary), but they are fitted, long-lasting, and the cost may be covered by health insurance or flexible spending accounts. There are a variety of filters (the round white disc you see in the photo), but I opted for 25 decibels.  And while everyone was talking about how loud the music was, for once I was perfectly comfortable.

So have fun this season and enjoy the holiday parties, but don’t leave home without your earplugs!

Toronto to tackle transportation noise

Photo credit: GTD Aquitaine, who has released this photo into the public domain.

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

That the noise from the commuter trains, passing the homes of David Bosworth and his neighbors living in Upper Toronto, Canada, intrudes on their household conversations as well as their sleep is readily understood by the millions of residents whose household activities and sleep are disrupted daily by the noise from overhead planes, nearby trains, and passing road traffic. Mr. Bosworth, like the millions of others similarly impacted by transportation noise, feels that the noise issue has not been addressed as a serious pollutant. This, despite the abundant literature linking noise impacts to cardiovascular and sleep disorders, learning disruptions, and diminished quality of life. Furthermore, Mr. Bosworth fears that the expansion of the train route near his home will bring even more noise disruptions.

In the Globe and Mail article linked above, Sasha Zeidler writes that the Toronto regional transportation agency Metrolinx is looking to lessen the noise to which residents will be exposed in the future even as it plans to expand the transit line. Toronto, says Zeidler, is a city aware of the effects of noise on its residents and it “is aiming to reduce noise pollution from traffic, transit and other infrastructure projects.”

I, for one, will look to see whether Toronto successfully carries out its mission to reduce noise pollution.

It is interesting to note that in this article, there are references to the World Health Organization guidelines, a study published in a German academic article linking heart attacks to traffic and rail noise, mapping of noise in Florence, Italy and other Canadian noise studies but no references to research in the country south of Canada—the U.S. While the U.S. has not taken the lead in addressing noise pollution, I do not want readers to think that Americans have been lax with respect to noise research and activism. I suggest readers search back on this site for American noise studies and the Americans who are actively working to reduce noise in our society.

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.

Never underestimate man’s ability to find more obnoxious ways to make noise

Photo credit: ben dalton licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

And oh the irony that this assault on one’s senses (and sensibility) is termed a “silent disco.”  What is a silent disco?  It’s when a bunch of extroverts don wireless headphones playing pop music and dance their way through formerly delightful parts of European cities, stopping occasionally to shout out lyrics together, as a sort of fresh hell ensemble. Here’s a sample:

Fortunately, residents of Edinburgh, Scotland have a city government that understands their concerns and is responding in the only responsible way: Edinburgh to ban “silent discos.”