The Truth About Noise

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Coping with hearing loss and noisy restaurants is not a game

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report from CNN discusses a novel strategy to help people with hearing loss understand speech: a game to train the brain to process speech better.

This is a widely known but poorly understood problem–sometimes called the “Speech in Noise problem”–with people with hearing loss, but it can also affect people with normal or adequate hearing as tested by standard hearing tests (“pure tone audiometry”) who nonetheless can have problems understanding speech.

The problem is worse for those with hearing aids, which is probably why up to 40% of people with hearing aids don’t use them–they just don’t help understand speech in everyday situations. As hearing loss blogger Shari Eberts has written, hearing aids just are not like eyeglasses.

Some research supports a central cause for this, i.e., deficiencies in brain processing of auditory signals as people age. Other research puts the problem in the periphery, i.e., the ear. And the research on hidden hearing loss puts the problem in between, in the nerves connecting the ear to the brain. Most likely the explanation involves all three.

Even though the computer game reported in this story may eventually help people who struggle to understand speech, dealing with hearing loss and noisy restaurants isn’t a game.

The real answer isn’t brain training. It’s quieter restaurants, stores, and other public places.

Quieter indoor places will not only help those who already have hearing loss understand speech, they will prevent hearing loss in those still with good hearing.

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.

Study: Urban noise worst in poor and minority neighborhoods

Photo credit: Franck Michel licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

That noise is worse in poor and minority communities, especially in cities, is not new. Articles dating back to the sixties spoke to the impacts of noise in poorer communities, not just noises from outside the homes, but noises within the crowded apartments of large, urban cities. It was hypothesized that children whose classrooms were exposed to the noise of nearby elevated trains would suffer cognitively and this would result in poorer reading scores for these children.

Today, however, with modern technology allowing actual measurements to be taken in communities, we can more accurately measure community decibel levels and conduct studies as discussed here that find urban noise pollution worst in poorer, minority areas.

There is now an abundance of studies that have found that noise adversely affects mental and physical health. With better data to identify communities adversely affected by louder sounds, coupled with supportive literature linking noise to adverse mental and physical health problems, one would hope that the authors of the present research would have suggested ways to abate the noise. Sadly, the authors missed that opportunity, stressing instead that further research is required to deal with deleterious effects of noise.

One exception to the results of the research discussed above is a type of noise that tends to be an “equal opportunity offender.” Aircraft noise does not distinguish between poorer and more advantaged communities. Yet, one could say that individuals in more affluent neighborhoods are better organized to combat the overhead noises, though the citizens combating aircraft-related noises would not agree with the authors of this paper who state that “…the most successful U.S. noise reduction efforts have centered on the airline industry.”

The manner in which aircraft noise is measured by the FAA and the decibel level it has established as being intrusive falsely create the impression that far fewer people are affected by aviation noise. True, newer quieter engines are more efficient, but this does not allow one to conclude that aircraft noise is less bothersome. The use of inappropriate determinants to assess impacts, the increase in air traffic, and the new routes that have been deemed by citizens to be more intrusive speak more accurately to the adverse effects of aircraft noise.

In the end, whatever the source of noise or the community affected, one thing is obvious–environmental health researchers should go beyond publishing and seek ways to use their findings to improve the lives of individuals affected by deleterious pollutants such as noise.

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.

Canadian man fined for loudly singing


Here’s how you sing in a car responsibly!  |   Photo credit: nikoretro licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Everybody Dance Now. The BBC reports that a Canadian man was pulled over and ticketed by Montreal police for “screaming in a public place” after “being caught singing in his car.” He is contesting the ticket, which is no laughing matter–$149 Canadian, which is a little under $120 U.S. Taoufik Moalla, 38, doesn’t dispute that he was singing in his car. Rather he claims that his singing “wasn’t loud enough to disturb anyone.” Apparently the Montreal police would disagree, although it is unclear from the article whether the reason for the ticket was loudness or his musical taste.

While there may be disagreement about whether the police action was justified, we think most would agree that this is criminal: Mr. Moalla was in his car driving to  the grocery store to buy a bottle of water.

Surely that should have earned him a second ticket.

The Denialist Playbook and the FAA

Photo credit: MBisanz licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

When I was sent a copy of this FAA presentation to the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus, FAA Powerpoint PDF, I had a moment of recognition: the FAA is using a play from what I call “The Denialist Playbook.” The Oxford Dictionaries define a denialist as:

A person who refuses to admit the truth of a concept or proposition that is supported by the majority of scientific or historical evidence.

There appears to be a denialist playbook, just as there are playbooks for football teams. Just as one can recognize a screen pass play watching a football game, one can recognize the denialist plays when industries or government agencies try them. A well-documented example denialism can be found in the book “The Merchants of Doubt,” which chronicles how “Big Tobacco” issued statements and funded research to sow doubt about the dangers of cigarettes. No doubt Big Tobacco looked to the past. After all, when the lead contamination scandal unfolded in Flint, Michigan, it came to light that lead pipe manufacturers had trod the same path in the 1920s. And, of course, the conservative denial of climate change–continuing to deny that it is happening, even as the seas rise, the floods of biblical proportion inundate Houston, and the fires burn in California–would be laughable if the consequences weren’t so serious.

One version of the Denialist Playbook was described by Christie Aschwanden at Grist:

Step 1: Doubt the science.
Step 2: Question scientists’ motives and interests.
Step 3: Magnify legitimate, normal disagreements among scientists and cite gadflies as authorities.
Step 4: Exaggerate potential harms (scare the hell out of people).
Step 5: Appeal to personal freedom (I’m an American and no government official can tell me what vaccinations I need).
Step 6: Show that accepting the science would represent a repudiation of a key philosophy.

But I think that brief version omits several important basic plays from what I will call “The Complete Denialist Playbook.” Here are the playbook topics by chapter:

  1. Deny that there is a problem. Climate change denialism may be the most salient current example, but the FAA does this to a certain extent on Slide 4, when it states, “[a] factor of 20 decrease in community noise exposure has been accompanied by increased community concerns.” The FAA is staying that there isn’t a problem, when numerous media reports across the country document that aircraft noise is a major problem.
  2. When it becomes obvious that there is a problem, claim that it isn’t a major or real problem.
  3. Ignore those who complain about a problem, especially if they are young, women, or members of minority groups. This happened with the water problems in Flint, Michigan.
  4. State that there must be something wrong with those who complain about a problem. This was done by the conservative Mercatus Center in its “NIMBY report.
  5. Reluctantly admit that there might be a problem, but it isn’t associated, statistically correlated, and certainly not causally related with what reputable scientists think is the causative agent.
  6. Find fake experts who have views contrary to established knowledge but really are not experts in the field, even though they may have a PhD after their names.
  7. Fund research to find alternative explanations for the causation of the problem.
  8. Fund (in many cases through hidden funding mechanisms) consensus statements or even research that will obscure the true nature of the problem, i.e., sow confusion or doubt about the causal relationship.
  9. Cherry-pick the data and select research or quotes taken out of context to discredit established researchers and the scientific consensus to create an appearance of conflict or controversy when among experts there is none.
  10. Fund cultural or social organizations whose support can then be enlisted in fighting any regulatory efforts to control or ameliorate the problem. Philip Morris, among others, did this.
  11. Fund legitimate researchers looking for funding so that they will be reluctant to criticize their funding source or do research that may endanger their funding source.
  12. When the problem is so obvious that it can’t be denied, finally admit that there might be a problem, but insist that it isn’t a big problem.
  13. Offer alternative solutions to the problem which mask the real cause, e.g., soda makers funding youth exercise programs as a solution to the epidemic of obesity in young people, rather than admitting that sodas are a major, if not the major, contributor to obesity in your people.
  14. Invoke American freedoms to fight any regulatory efforts. Again, the tobacco industry did this, funding fake “Astroturf” organizations protesting that restrictions on smoking interfered with smokers’ right to smoke.
  15. Insist that the data are not robust enough and that more research is needed, which, of course, will take many years.
  16. Keep insisting that there is still doubt about the level of proof even when the overwhelming majority of scientists and even the public are convinced. The Heartland Institute, for example, still claims that there is doubt about whether smoking causes lung cancer.

It is the “more research” strategy that the FAA is adopting. On Slide 11 concerning cardiovascular health, the FAA states that “[e]xisting health study cohorts are being used to evaluate linkages between health outcomes a noise exposure while accounting for a wide range of factors,” with the research completion anticipated in 2020.

I have read some of the salient literature about aircraft noise and cardiovascular health, and attended several sessions on this topic and spoke with the world’s leading researchers in this field at the 12th Congress of the International Commission on the Biological Effects of Noise in Zürich in June, 2017. While there is always a need for more research, there is no need for further research into this particular topic because there is no doubt that aircraft noise causes cardiovascular disease. The basic physiologic mechanisms of how noise in general and aircraft noise specifically causes involuntary physiologic responses in the neuroendocrine and parasympathetic nervous systems have been well-described. A large number of epidemiology studies, using a variety of study designs, in a large number of countries, in different population groups, have shown that aircraft noise causes hypertension and cardiovascular disease. There can be no rational doubt about this relationship. These studies have been reviewed by Hammer et al., Basner et al., Munzel et al., and many others. As Basner noted in an editorial, the evidence is strong enough that most experts in the field think causality has been established.

In Europe, the adverse effects of noise on health are well-known, as summarized in a World Health Organization monograph on the “Burden of Disease from Environmental Noise.”  The European Union is dealing with this in its European Noise Directive.

There is NO need to reinvent this wheel on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, unless scientists can prove Americans are biologically different from Europeans. The FAA insisting that more research is needed to document the health dangers of aircraft noise exposure in the face of hundreds of articles in peer-reviewed scientific and medical journals is like the National Cancer Institute suddenly insisting that more research must be done to prove the dangers of smoking. How many more Americans must have their health damaged by aircraft noise–or even killed by it–before the truth is acknowledged? It is time for the FAA to act to protect the health of those exposed to aircraft noise, and if the FAA won’t act, for America’s congressional representatives to take action.

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.

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

Subways can be quieter

Photo credit: Tim Adams licensed under CC BY 2.0

In San Francisco, BART is grinding down wheels on its cars, making the ride quieter. New York City, like San Francisco, uses metal wheels on its subways, making for a screechy, ear drum-bashing experience from the platform to the car. So BART’s attempt is a step in the right direction. But….

Here’s how you make for a much better subway soundscape:

We can dream of a subway future with rubber tires. It’s possible.

Quiet aircraft? NASA’s on the job, but when?

By David Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Hope is nice now and then—don’t expect results tomorrow, but maybe next year?

If you like an occasional look ahead—toward a world with quieter aircraft—read the August 14-September 3 issue of Aviation Week.* In an article entitled “Sound Barrier: Noise is emerging as the biggest challenge to high-density urban air-taxi operations,” the magazine’s managing editor for technology, Graham Warwick writes about what NASA (and yes, Uber) are doing to build a future of inter-urban transport. Are you ready to imagine “Air-Uber”?

The key is convincing municipal governments that these air-taxis will be quiet(er) than conventional aircraft. So note the term “eVTOL” (Electric Vertical Take Off and Landing craft, or distributed electric-propulsion vehicles). That’s right, they’re electric. This is the likely future of quieter, low-emission air transport—and as the video above proves, it’s no joke.

Do we really need eVTOL air-taxis? That depends on what “we” means. At any rate, it turns out the kink in this scenario is the noise problem: so switching to quiet eVTOLs is a prerequisite to getting this air-taxi fleet off the ground in urban areas. Hence, NASA has taken on the noise issue—at last! (NOT the FAA—which is a good thing overall since FAA has steadfastly resisted doing anything at all about noise for decades).

Meanwhile back in the real world, why can’t American airports and airlines simply encourage adoption of the new Pratt & Whitney quiet jet engine that is already in use in the UK and EU (the PW1100G geared turbofan). It’s supposed to be 75% quieter and 15% to 20% more fuel-efficient than conventional jet engines. Furthermore, Airbus has already installed the Pratt & Whitney engine on it’s new A320neo aircraft and 90 of them have already been delivered to 11 airlines (only two of which are American: Spirit and Frontier). Another issue of Aviation Week* reported favorably on the launch of this new, quieter aircraft and cited one source as saying “[t]he A320neo is now the quietest aircraft.”

There are plenty of Airbus planes in the fleets of US-based airlines, so let’s urge airlines to order a few more and retire their noisy fleets of aging aircraft! Airbus is set to deliver 200 more of them this year.

Sadly, the FAA is not going to get out in front of the noise issue anytime soon. They continue to insist that while noise may be “annoying” to some people, they won’t let that get in the way of the roll-out of their NextGen program—despite the fact that NextGen is precisely the program that has so enraged the three dozen members of Congress who formed the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus and the 36 communities across the USA that have formed the National Quiet Skies Coalition.

Take a look at this recent presentation given by the FAA to the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus: FAA Powerpoint PDF.

Doesn’t sound like they’re in any rush to quiet down America’s airports, does it? So I’m betting on NASA’s approach, i.e., electrically powered aircraft and “alternative solutions”—such as convincing airlines to stock their fleets with Airbus planes. Maybe the competition will finally wake up Boeing and GE and they’ll realize that some of us understand that noise is much more than “annoyance,” it’s a public health issue.

*Sorry, you’ll either have to subscribe to Aviation Week online or read it in the library.

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.

Noise can make you deaf

Photo credit: UrbanUrban_ru licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

And the Hindustan Times, knowing this, advises its readers: This Diwali, turn a deaf ear to noise.

Diwali is happening now, so enjoy the sigts–and some of the sounds–and don’t forget to pack some disposable earplugs for yourself, your friends, and family.