Silencity

The Truth About Noise

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There is nothing inevitable or natural about chronic disease

Photo credit: Robbie Sproule licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This thoughtful piece talks about chronic disease, pointing out that it is not inevitable or natural. The author, Dr. Clayton Dalton, writes that:

[T]raditional cultures across the globe, from hunter-gatherers to pastoralists to horticulturists, have shown little evidence of chronic disease. It’s not because they don’t live long enough – recent analysis has found a common lifespan of up to 78 years among hunter-gatherers, once the bottlenecks of high mortality in infancy and young adulthood are bypassed. We can’t blame genes, since many of these groups appear to be more genetically susceptible to chronic disease than those of European descent.

So what is the reason for the absence of chronic illness among these cultures? “Evidence suggests it is how they live,” Dr. Dalton replies. And what factors do these different cultures share?  Dr. Dalton writes that the “common denominator [is] defined by the absence of modern banes: absence of processed foodstuffsabsence of sedentary lifestyle, and likely absence of chronic stressors.”

Dr. Dalton doesn’t specifically mention noise-induced hearing loss, but that’s another chronic disease that he could have included in his essay.

I spoke about this at the 12th Congress of the International Commission on the Biological Effects of Noise in Zürich in June. Similar to Dr. Dalton’s comments about hypertension and diabetes, I presented information showing that significant hearing loss is probably not part of normal aging, but represents noise-induced hearing loss.

A useful analogy for noise and hearing is sun and the skin. It turns out that skin and subcutaneous tissues sag as we age–that’s normal–but deep wrinkles, age spots, and skin cancers are the result of ultraviolet exposure. Similarly, I’m sure there are changes that occur in our hearing as we age, but profound hearing loss (25-40 decibel decrement in hearing) is most often the result of noise exposure.

In the end, how we live our lives matters. If we want to hear well into old age, we have to work to preserve our hearing all during our lives. How? It’s easy: avoid loud noise or wear ear protection if you can’t.

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.

Attention commuters: put down your earbuds!

 

Photo credit: Pedro Figueiredo licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

A recent article in The Hearing Journal should give pause to mass transit commuters who use personal listening devices (PLDs) to mask background noise. Michelle Brady, AuD, Suzanne Miller, PhD, and Yula C. Serpanos, PhD, write that “[m]ass transit commuters are regularly exposed to excessive noise levels,” and note that use of PLDs “adds further stress on the auditory system as commuters listen at high volume levels to mask the background noise encountered during their daily commute.” By cranking the volume in areas of high noise, they note, commuters are “creating further risk of noise-induced hearing loss” (NIHL).

What makes NIHL insidious is that it “occurs in stages across several years,” and “[a]s such, its effects often go unnoticed.” Until they can’t be ignored, of course. The authors conducted a study on New York City commuters and found that “mass transit commuters in NYC do not completely understand the consequences of hearing loss and the proper use of PLDs.” They conclude that hearing health professionals need “to do a better job at educating the public about the risks of NIHL and safe listening habits.”

We agree that people need to be aware of the risks of NIHL, but also think there should be a role that government must play to protect citizens. And, of course, PLD manufacturers need to work with medical professionals and government to design safe PLDs that won’t deafen a generation.

 

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.

Whales talking on new frequency due to ocean noise

Photo credit: NOAA Photo Library (public domain)

Avery Thompson, Popular Mechanics, reports that “[n]ew research suggests that blue whales are changing their communication band due to noise from human ships.” Thompson writes that noise from ocean liners and large container ships can travel for miles below the waves, disturbing animals like whales and dolphins. Researchers from from Oregon State University are finding that blue whales are learning to adapt to the noise by changing the frequency with which they communicate, and they “believe that the whales are doing this deliberately to avoid interference from human sounds.” Of course, the scientists aren’t completely sure, but as shipping companies move to using quieter electric ships, they will be able to see if the whales go back to their former frequencies.

And it’s not just whales and dolphins that are reacting to ocean noise. Researchers at Newcastle University have discovered that “European sea bass experienced higher stress levels when exposed to the types of piling and drilling sounds made during the construction of offshore structures.”

It’s long past time that humans start considering the harmful effects our noisy existences are having on each other and every other living thing on this planet.

 

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.

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.

 

 

Noise discriminates–heavier burden unfairly borne by the poor and non-white

Photo credit: Alicia Nijdam licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Noise exposure has multiple effects on humans–it causes auditory disorders, interferes with learning, and disrupts sleep, causing increased cardiovascular disease and death, among other things. A new analysis of socioeconomic, racial, and spatial variation in noise exposure in the U.S. shows that the poor and nonwhite have greater exposure to noise than wealthier and nonminority populations.

Life may not be fair, but governments have a responsibility to try to make it more fair, and to protect all citizens from harm: rich and poor, white and non-white, native-born and immigrant. Those who often refer to the U.S. Constitution often seem to forget this, but the preamble includes a mandate to “promote the general Welfare.” A quieter environment for all Americans would appear to be part of this.

This also happens to be current federal law. The Noise Control Act of 1972 is still on the books, even if the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) was defunded in 1982. Reasonable people understand that the EPA and ONAC will not be properly funded during this current administration, but at some future time the funding must be made available. Noise damages more than hearing, and it is simply unacceptable that poor and nonwhite Americans suffer greater noise exposure while the federal government stands by and does nothing to protect 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.

“Health attacks” by inaudible sonic waves are real

Photo credit: Tess Watson licensed under CC BY 2.0

James Hamblin, The Atlantic, writes about the attacks on American and Canadian diplomats in Cuba in his article, “What Are Sound Weapons?” Hamblin starts his piece by describing the incidents which caused several Havana-based diplomats to suffer headaches, balance issues, and even severe hearing loss. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Hamblin notes, refered the to incidents as “health attacks.” And the AP reported that “U.S. officials concluded that the diplomats had been attacked with an advanced sonic weapon that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been deployed either inside or outside their residences.”

The weaponization of “energy waves with frequencies outside the range that the human ear can detect” is not new, writes Hamblin, and the health effects from exposure to inaudible sonic waves are real. Hamblin shares the story of residents of Kokomo, Indiana, who in 2001 experienced “annoyance, sleep disturbance, headaches, and nausea.” The U.S. National Institutes of Health investigated the matter but “couldn’t pin down the cause of the Indiana residents’ symptoms as infrasound.” The report, however, “did confirm that infrasound can cause fatigue, apathy, hearing loss, confusion, and disorientation.”

In the end, U.S. officials don’t know if Cuba is responsible or some third party, with the suggestion offered that the actor could have been “Russia, China, North Korea, Venezuela, or Iran.” But Hamblin adds that the attack is hardly sophisticated, as “[n]oise-induced hearing loss affects around one in four people,” although the source of noise is more mundane for most of us: loud concerts, shooting guns, and everyday failures to protect our hearing. Says Hamblin, “fascination with this sort of attack can be a reminder that it is worth arming ourselves in daily life against the more quotidian forms of sonic weaponry.”

London’s poised to do something about noise

Photo credit: Majophotography licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 ES

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

In the U.S., noise is widely considered “just a nuisance,” but in Europe noise pollution is recognized as a major health hazard. In the current political climate, and with the current administration and Environmental Protection Agency administrator, we don’t expect anything to be done about noise here–just as climate change is viewed in Washington as a Chinese hoax–but other countries and regions accept the science.

The World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease report quantified the numbers of productive years of life lost due to noise. The European Noise Directive tells governments what to do about environmental noise. And now London is proposing a comprehensive environmental strategy, which includes very strong actions to deal with environmental noise.

We think London’s comprehensive environmental strategy is a wonderful model for cities and states in the U.S. to follow.

Please share this link with your state and local representatives or your governor.

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.