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Why a Toronto study on commuter noise is relevant to New York City

Photo credit: Dennis Jarvis licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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

In their recently published article “Noise exposure while commuting in Toronto – a study of personal and public transportation in Toronto,” Dr. Yao and his associates concluded that the sound levels associated with mass transit were intense enough to potentially cause some hearing loss. The authors found that while average noise levels in subway cars and on the subway stations were high, peak noise levels in the subway system exceeded 100 dBA. They also reported noise levels for buses and street cars with subways and bus average noise levels exceeding the average noise level for street cars. Recognizing that the mass transit system in Toronto is likely to expand, the authors suggested that “…engineering noise-control efforts should continue to focus on materials and equipment that confer a quieter environment.”

As a New Yorker and regular subway rider, I have long been aware of the impacts of New York City subway and elevated train noise on the health and well-being of its employees and riders as well as those who live, work, and attend school near the elevated train tracks. Yet, it was my research, done over forty years ago, on the adverse effects of elevated train noise on the reading ability of children attending classes near the elevated train tracks that led to my greater involvement in advocating for a “quieter” transit system. It was this advocacy that resulted in the Transit Authority installing rubber resilient pads on the tracks adjacent to the classrooms to lessen the train noise in these classes. The Board of Education also installed acoustical ceilings in these same classrooms.

The follow-up study of reading scores in these classrooms after the abatements were in place found that the children in classrooms adjacent to the track were now reading at the same level as those on the quiet side of the building. To me, these studies yielded another important finding–transit noise can be reduced.

It is within the context of my many years of writing about transit noise and its adverse impacts on mental and physical health that I will address the findings of the above Toronto study. For the purposes of this review, I will not be addressing bus noise which I have also examined in the past.

My research on subway noise impeding classroom learning received a great deal of attention and it led to my being given the opportunity to examine Transit Authority records on noise complaints and actions. I learned that back to 1878 when the Third Avenue El was opened, the noise from passing trains disturbed students attending Cooper Union College and the school had to relocate a dozen classrooms to the other side of the school building. The Transit Authority compensated the college for the move by paying them $540.00.

In the years that followed this first complaint, there were other complaints to which the Transit Authority responded by abating the noise on the tracks. In fact, as early as 1924, the then Transit Commission acknowledged the potential harm of noise on its employees and attempted to set up noise abatement programs for its existing lines as well as its future ones. In looking at how the New York Transit Authority responded to noise complaints, I found that complaints led to attempts to reduce noise but within a short time transit noises returned only to have the Authority respond again with noise abatements. My paper “Rail noise: The relationship to subway maintenance and operation,” published in Urban Resources in 1986, presents a historical overview of how subway noise has been addressed by those in charge of the New York City transit system.¹

Of particular note is the year 1982, when the State of New York decided to pass a Rapid Rail Transit Noise Code requiring the Transit Authority to develop a comprehensive plan to address its noise problems and to report annually to the State Legislature about its efforts to abate noise. The impetus for this bill came from community activists who lived near a rail curve in Coney Island that led to loud screeches as trains navigated the curve. The citizen group, The Big Screechers, led by Carmine Santa Maria, lobbied their legislators to pass the Rail Transit Noise Code.

My 1986 paper discussed how the Transit Authority at this time coordinated its noise abatement project with ongoing capital purchases and maintenance demonstrating its awareness that decreased transit noise is a sign of a poorly functioning system. Just as an automobile owner would bring in a noisy car to the repair shop recognizing that attending to the noise would very likely prevent more serious trouble ahead, the Transit Authority acknowledged that noise is very likely a clue to potential breakdowns.

With the primary sources of subway train noise involving the wheel, the rail, and the subway car’s propulsion system, noise abatement measures included wheel truing, rail welding, rubber resilient pads, track lubrication, and acoustic barriers—all of which also contribute to the proper operation of the system. These noise abatement measures lessen noise but also facilitate the integrity of the transit system while providing a smoother and quieter ride for the passengers as well as a quieter system for its employees. The Transit Authority also purchased quieter traction motors for their subway cars, demonstrating an awareness that quiet can be built into the original design.

The 1982 Rail Transit Noise Code was indeed effective in getting the Transit Authority to reduce its noise but, unfortunately, someone interpreted the law as having a “12 year life span” and, by 1995, the Transit Authority no longer had to report annually to the State on its efforts to lessen transit noise. With the Transit Authority no longer having to report annually on efforts to reduce noise, one might expect the subway system to grow louder in the following years. Indeed, a 2009 study examining sound levels of the New York City subway system, like the one carried out in Toronto, similarly concluded that the subway system’s loud sound levels have the potential to cause noise-induced hearing loss among its riders.

A paper I wrote in 2010 entitled “Abating New York City transit noise: A matter of will not way,” again highlighted the fact that subway noise abatement techniques exist and that addressing the noise issue would not only benefit the operation of the system, potentially leading to fewer breakdowns, but a quieter system would be beneficial to the health and welfare of New Yorkers. A few years after this paper was published, I was pleased to learn that the State assembly and State Senate delivered to the Governor an updated Rail Transit Noise bill in December 2014. Sadly, this bill was vetoed by Governor Cuomo on December 17, 2014 [pdf link]. Had this bill been passed, encouraging the Transit Authority to address its subway noise problems, I believe the subway system today would be quieter, better maintained, and running more efficiently. Without having measured the sound levels of the subway system these past three years, my ear seems to indicate that the subways are now noisier and the many media stories speak volumes to the lack of proper subway maintenance and the deteriorating service.

Let me turn back to the Toronto noise study and comment on its relevance to the New York transit noise issue. According to a research memorandum from Toronto in 1983, that the New York City Transit Authority shared with me,¹ Toronto indicated that the city spent a considerable amount of money in the testing and application of noise control procedures. The memorandum stated that rail sections were continuously welded, acoustical material was used throughout the system, floating slabs were installed on tracks near noise-sensitive buildings, and wheel ring-dampers were being tested on their subway cars. The Toronto subway system, considerably younger than New York’s system, having opened in 1954, appeared to be led by people who were well aware of the importance of transit noise abatement.

In light of the media headlines following the release of Dr. Yao’s article noting excessive transit noise in the Toronto subway system is putting commuters’ health at risk, I would expect that the head of the Toronto Transit Commission, Andrew Byford, is now preparing a response to the publication. Why should his response be relevant to New Yorkers? Because Andrew Byford will soon be the President of the New York City Transit Authority and his response to the noise report might clue us in as to whether he will address what my “ear” seems to indicate. Namely, that our system is growing louder. It would also let New York transit riders know if he, like several former Transit Authority leaders, understands the relationship among noise levels, transit maintenance, and subway performance, and would also tell us as to whether he fully understands that a quieter subway would positively impact the mental and physical health of New Yorkers.

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.

¹Bronzaft, A. L. (1986). Rail noise: The relationship to subway maintenance and operation. Urban Resources, 4, 37-42.

Will earbuds ruin my hearing?

Photo credit: Marcus Quigmire licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The headline for this article in Time magazine is “Will earbuds ruin my hearing?” The short answer is that it’s not the earbuds or headphones that damage hearing, but the noise emanating from them. The longer answer follows.

The article widely cites Dr. Robert Dobie at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio who says that earbud use isn’t a problem.

It also cites Harvard researcher Dr. M. Charles Liberman, who, with Dr. Sharon Kujawa, discovered the phenomenon now known as hidden hearing loss. This is damage to nerve junctions (synapses) in the ear, called hidden because it is not detected by standard hearing tests.

Dr. Liberman says that earbud use might be a problem.

Dr. Dobie’s assertion that earbud use isn’t a problem sounds just like the doctors in the 1950s and 1960s who insisted that smoking cigarettes wasn’t harmful to health. We now know differently.

My conclusion is that noise causes hearing loss. The human ear was not designed to withstand loud noise exposure because such a tolerance offered no evolutionary advantage. As I wrote in the January 2017 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 day. I further explained, in a requested blog post for AJPH, that the real safe noise exposure level is probably lower than that.

We know, from decades of research on occupational noise exposure that led to the occupational safety criteria for noise exposure, from the work of Liberman and colleagues, and from hundreds or thousands of studies showing that noise damages hearing in animals and humans with the cellular and sub-cellular mechanisms of how this occurs now precisely understood that noise causes hearing loss.

If you believe Dr. Dobie, continue to listen to your personal music player using earbuds or headphones.

If you don’t want hearing aids when you are older (and I don’t think hearing loss is part of normal aging, as I said at the 12th Congress of the International Commission on the Biological Effects of Noise in Zürich in June 2017) my advice is not to use earbuds.

Your ears are like your eyes or your knees. God only gave you two of them. Protect them and keep them safe and working well your entire life.

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.

Here’s the best mass-media article on noise-induced hearing loss

Photo credit: rainy city licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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

Despite impacting 48 million Americans, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) has languished in the shadows for decades. But that’s changing! Check out the 17-page beautifully illustrated article in the September issue of Real Simple magazine*, a Time/Life publication with 8.5 million readers nationwide (that’s eight times larger than the New York Times readership of 1.1 million).

If you’ve been looking for a “quick overview” you can hand to friends and family who fail to understand America’s unrecognized problem with hearing loss—whether it’s your kids’ and their constant earbud (ab)use, friends who can’t understand conversations when you’re dining out, or an elderly relative who’s stopped paying attention and is increasingly depressed—this article should get the conversation started. And if they ask “what else can I read about this?” Tell them to look at this issue of Scientific American, new information from the Centers for Disease Control, and this one-page Fact Sheet on the health effects of noise that The Quiet Coalition (TQC) published in 2016.

It’s clear that NIHL is, as TQC’s chair, Daniel Fink, MD, says, “a growing problem in America nearing epidemic proportions.” But there’s a lot of work to do to get people (including the nation’s leaders) to understand that this is a legitimate public health problem. Frankly, the European Union and Asia are far ahead of us on this issue.

In the meantime, take heart: major media are beginning to notice! Congratulations to the editor of Real Simple for recognizing this growing health crisis. We are extremely grateful that her magazine cited three of TQC’s Steering Committee experts in this piece–Rick Neitzel, PhD, Arline Bronzaft, PhD, and Bradley Vite–and also
described two practical success stories. We hope Real Simple will continue to cover this issue and give it the attention it deserves.

We have only one complaint: the magazine erroneously states that 85 dB is the threshold of hearing damage. In fact, research has shown that permanent hearing damage starts at noise levels as low as 75 dB; furthermore, non-audiological health effects, such as cardiovascular effects, can be caused by noises as low as 55 dB.

*NOTE: the best place to find Real Simple magazine may be at the checkout counter at Whole Foods or a local book store. Or you can get it here.

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

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.

Is the mystery of “The Hum” solved?

Photo credit: eutrophication&hypoxi licensed under CC BY 2.0

News.com.au reports that scientists believe they have discovered the source of the mysterious hum that “can drive [some] people to the brink of madness.” For those who can hear it, “‘The Hum‘ can cause sleepless nights, stress and nosebleeds and is described as a relentless ‘kind of torture’ with no explanation.” Various theories have been bandied about as to the source–submarines, gas pipes, and even mating fish–but in the end the explanation is far less fanciful. Scientists Fabrice Ardhuin, Lucia Gualtieri, and Eleonore Stutzmann believe that the “microseismic activity, recorded everywhere on Earth, is largely due to ocean waves.” So how do ocean waves make the hum? The scientists postulate that “the pressure of the waves on the sea-floor causes the earth to vibrate like a bell and creates a sound that is heard more by some than others.”

Of course the answer won’t bring relief to those who suffer from the hum (known as “hummers”), but it may help them from being misdiagnosed with tinnitus.

 

 

New hearing aid filters out noise (but not as well as your own ears and brain)

Photo credit: Steve Johnson licensed under CC by 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Engineers at Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science have made an advance in hearing aid design that reportedly will allow users to better understand speech in noisy environments by combining auditory and neurological signal processing techniques. No doubt the millions of people who suffer with hearing loss appreciate the efforts to tackle this health issue. But why do we see article after article focusing on funding for treatments or cures of hearing loss but nothing about funding hearing loss prevention?

We think the better option is to prevent noise-induced hearing loss by avoiding exposure to loud noise. The human ear and brain are designed to process incoming sound well and probably do this better than any electronic gizmo can. Research shows that noise damages not just the ear but directly damages the brain as well, at least in animal models.

And for those who already have hearing loss–and even for those who don’t–quieter indoor and outdoor environments will allow everyone to converse more easily. The techniques for creating indoor quiet are well known: eliminate noise sources if possible, isolate noise sources that can’t be eliminated, use sound absorbing materials on floors, walls, ceilings, and furniture, and use architectural features to break up reflected sound waves. And while some may balk at the cost of implementing these techniques, there is one no cost option everyone can use: turn down the volume of amplified sound from rock concert levels to hearing preservation levels!

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.