Ronda Kaysen, The New York Times, reports on the scourge of suburbia in, “On Banning Leaf Blowers.” Kaysen writes that “New Yorkers who leave the city for the suburbs often do so for three reasons: schools, space and silence.” But she adds that “silence, it turns out, can be a problem.” Why? Because while “suburban streets are certainly free of blaring horns, wailing sirens and, sometimes, even people…come springtime, they vibrate with the hum of lawn mowers, edgers, trimmers and leaf blowers; the accompanying noise continues until the last leaves fall from the trees in early December.”
So what can suburbanites do to quell the din? Kaysen tells us that the Township of Maplewood, New Jersey is considering a ban on the noisiest and most noxious of a landscaper’s tools: leaf blowers. The township’s proposed ordinance prohibits commercial use of blowers from May 15 through September 30, and imposes strict limits as to use for the rest of the year. The ordinance also imposes fines, starting at $500 for the first offense.
The problem with leaf blowers is twofold. As Jamie Banks, the founder of Quiet Communities, a group that advocates quieter lawn maintenance equipment, states: “[I]t’s not just the noise. It’s the pollution.” Kaysen adds that:
Most landscapers use leaf blowers with two-stroke engines, which are light enough to carry but produce significant exhaust and noise. The gas and oil mix together, and about a third of it does not combust. As a result, pollutants that have been linked to cancers, heart disease, asthma and other serious ailments escape into the air.
Despite there being alternatives–say, a rake?–there is pushback, of course. Residents who hate noise are facing off with residents who feel the ordinance will “hamstrung their gardeners, leaving their yards looking unkempt, with grass suffocating beneath piles of clippings.” And landscapers insist that leaf blowers are essential, claiming that “when used properly, is not a nuisance.” Used properly means at half speed, “which is significantly lower in noise volume, they’re much more efficient,” said Paul Mendelsohn, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Landscape Professionals. Which makes us wonder why full speed is even an option.
Click the first link to read the entire piece. It is well worth your time, particularly the bit about local hero Fred Chichester, 79, of Montclair, who, when he hears a leaf blower nearby, “gets into his 1998 Ford Escort wagon, one of his seven cars, and looks for the culprits, suing them in municipal court for violating the ban.” Fred then takes the landscapers to court, “about 20 times over the years.” And he usually wins.
In “A Map of Noisy America,” CityLab writes about the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ (BTS) new National Transportation Noise Map, which shows that “more than 97 percent of the U.S. population has the potential to be exposed to noise from aviation and Interstate highways at levels below 50 decibels or roughly comparable to the noise level of a humming refrigerator.” The map also reveals that “[l]ess than one-tenth of a percent of the population could potentially experience noise levels of 80 decibels or more.” So that’s not bad, right? Well, yes and no.
CityLab notes that “noise doesn’t have to be particularly penetrating to be a public health menace,” adding that the World Health Organization “set a benchmark of recommended exposure to night sounds for Europeans” at 40 decibels. Why so low? Because studies have shown that sleep schedules are interrupted by noise over 42 decibels, “[e]xposure to road noise above 50 decibels (comparable to a quiet office) has been associated with higher risks of heart attack,” and noise has been linked to obesity and other maladies.
So check out the map and see how your community fares, but keep in mind that this map only looks at aviation and highway noise. Next up? The BTS states that “future versions of the National Transportation Noise Map are envisioned to include additional transportation noise sources, such as rail and maritime.” We’ll keep you posted.
A new study suggests that they are trying to escape noise, reports news.com.au. The study “has found that startled beaked whales swimming away from low frequency sonar boost their energy consumption by more than 30 per cent.” Why is this important? Because the “study showed a big difference in the energy cost of whales swimming normally and attempting to escape danger,” and suggested that “In some cases fleeing whales might run out of steam and become washed up on beaches.”
Jeanine Barone, writing for Principa-Scientific International, interviews Arline Bronzaft, PhD, asking Dr. Bronzaft about her lifetime of fighting noise. Dr. Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist, is a professor emerita of psychology at Lehman College, City University of New York, and an expert witness in court cases and government hearings on the impact of noise on mental and physical well-being. She also is a founding member of The Quiet Coalition.
Barone wonders whether noise has to be loud to affect people, to which Dr. Bronzaft responds that noise doesn’t necessarily have to be loud to affect someone because “[n]oise is any unwanted, uncontrollable, or unpredictable sound.” Dr. Bronzaft describes the negative effects of noise on health and quality of life, including its impact on children’s learning.
That noise is understood to be detrimental to children’s learning is due in large part to Dr. Bronzaft’s landmark study of an elementary school adjacent to an elevated train track in New York City. On one side of the building “the classrooms were exposed to passing train noise every 4.5 minutes,” while on the other side of the building “the classrooms were not intruded upon by passing train noise.” Dr. Bronzaft’s study showed that “[b]y the sixth grade, the children exposed to noise were nearly a year behind in reading.”
But Dr. Bronzaft didn’t conclude her study and move on. Rather, she brought the data to the transit authority and convinced them to employ noise suppression technology on the nearby tracks. Some years later she did a follow-up study that found that the noise had decreased and “children on both sides of the school were reading at the same level.”
Click the link to learn more about Dr. Bronzaft’s work
The Associated Press (AP) reports that “[s]cientists have been finding evidence that loud noise — from rock concerts, leaf blowers, power tools, and the like — damages our hearing in a previously unsuspected way.” The damage “may not be immediately noticeable, and it does not show up in standard hearing tests,” the AP adds, but according to Harvard researcher M. Charles Liberman,” it can rob our ability to understand conversation in a noisy setting [and] may also help explain why people have more trouble doing that as they age.” The condition is called “hidden hearing loss,” and Liberman adds that “[n]oise is more dangerous than we thought.”
The AP interviews Matt Garlock, a 29-year old systems engineer who is “a veteran of rock concerts.” Garlock complained of not being able to hear friends in a crowded bar, but when he got his hearing checked his test results were normal. The AP writes that Liberman’s work “suggests that there’s another kind of damage that doesn’t kill off hair cells, but which leads to experiences like Garlock’s.” Specifically, Liberman believes that loud noise damages the delicate connections between hair cells, called synapses. He adds that animal studies show that “you could lose more than half of your synapses without any effect on how you score on an audiogram,” but if you lose enough synapses, it “erodes the message the nerves deliver to the brain, wiping out details that are crucial for sifting conversation out from background noise.”
The end result is that people like Garlock recognize that they have a problem but their hearing appears to be fine when they take conventional hearing tests. Fortunately, Liberman says that “[o]ne encouraging indication from the animal studies is that a drug might be able to spur nerves to regrow the lost synapses.” [Note: This article notes that Liberman has a financial stake in a company that is trying to develop such treatments.] But while treatment for hidden hearing loss may be available in the future, what can be done now? Liberman states that his work “lends a new urgency to the standard advice about protecting the ears in loud places.” As always, prevention is better than treatment.
In 1962, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” described the harmful effects of insecticides and herbicides on birds, beneficial insects, animals, and humans. Her book helped start the environmental movement. For too many people, this will be another silent spring, caused not by a dearth of birds but because people can’t hear birds sing. They have hearing loss from another environmental pollutant, noise.
Carson described how nature’s balance controlled pest species naturally, and how these species became problems only when humans changed the environment. She noted the difference between apparent short-term safety of agrichemicals and longer-term danger. People could get sprayed with pesticides or even ingest them without apparent immediate harm, with cancer and birth defects coming later.
If Carson were alive today, she might write about noise pollution, which interferes with animal feeding, communication, mating behaviors, and navigation in forests, fields, and oceans, and causes hearing loss and other medical problems in humans. In nature’s quiet, animals developed exquisite hearing to find food or avoid being eaten. An owl can find a mouse under a foot of snow, and zebras can hear lions approaching in the veldt.
Humans are also born with excellent hearing. Brief exposure to loud noise usually doesn’t cause obvious auditory damage in humans, but longer or repeated exposure does. The relationship between noise and hearing loss was first noted in medieval times in bell ringers and miners, then in boilermakers during the industrial revolution. Noise wasn’t a widespread problem, and except in large cities life was usually quiet.
Industrialization, mechanization, and urbanization made life noisier. Noise was recognized as a public health hazard in the early days of interstate highways and jet travel, but was also considered an environmental pollutant. In 1972 Congress passed the Noise Pollution and Abatement Act, empowering the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish noise standards and require noise labeling for consumer and industrial products.
During the Reagan administration, however, Congress defunded EPA noise control activities. Little has been done since to control noise, and our country has gotten noticeably louder. Sound levels of 90-100 decibels or louder are reported in restaurants, clubs, retail stores, movie theaters, gyms, sports events, concerts, and parties, from sirens, vehicles, landscape maintenance equipment, and construction, and for those using personal music players.
The National Institutes of Health states that prolonged exposure to noise at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. This is misleading, because no exposure time is given and hearing damage occurs at much lower levels. The 85-decibel standard is an occupational noise exposure standard, not a safe noise level for the public.. The EPA adjusted the occupational standard for additional noise exposure outside the workplace to calculate the noise level for preventing hearing loss to be a daily time-weighted average of only 70 decibels.
Hearing is the social sense, required for spoken communication. About 40 million American adults age 20-69 have noise induced hearing loss, half of them without noisy jobs. Why is this happening? They are exposed to loud everyday noise. Cumulative noise exposure eventually causes hearing loss, affecting 25% of those in their 60s, half in their 70s, and 80% in their 80s, and is correlated with social isolation, depression, dementia, falls, and mortality. Due to denial, stigma, and cost only 20% of older Americans with hearing loss acquire hearing aids, after an average seven-year delay, and 40% of people with hearing aids don’t use them much, largely because hearing aids don’t help users understand speech well in noisy environments.
Preventing noise-induced hearing loss is simple: avoid loud noise. If it sounds too loud, it is too loud. Free or inexpensive smart phone sound meter apps make it easy to measure sound levels, but if one can’t converse without straining to speak or to be heard, ambient noise is above the auditory injury threshold of 75-78 decibels and auditory damage is occurring.
A quieter world is easily attainable. Whisper-quiet dishwashers, cars with quiet interiors and exhausts, the Airbus A380, and a few quiet restaurants and stores prove this. Effective noise control technologies have long existed, including noise reduction via design and material specifications and sound insulating, isolating, reflecting, diffusing, or absorbing techniques. Indoors, all that may be necessary is turning down the background music volume, which costs nothing.
In the 1950s and 1960s, half of all American men smoked and public spaces and workplaces were filled with tobacco smoke. When research showed that tobacco smoke caused cancer and heart disease, governments restricted smoking, leading eventually to today’s largely smoke-free society. Smokers can still smoke, but can’t expose others involuntarily to their smoke.
Noise causes hearing loss. Governments should set and enforce indoor and outdoor noise standards, to reduce each person’s daily noise dose. Adults have the right to make and listen to all the noise they want, but not where others can hear them. If we can breathe smoke-free air, we can make a quieter world, so future generations won’t have to endure another silent spring.
Dr. Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association and is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council and 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.
Not sure? One halllmark of hidden hearing loss is having difficulty hearing when you are in a noisy setting. Recently, the Associated Press asked the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami to prepare an exercise to help readers determine how well they can hear in a noisy background. Click the link to try the exercise and see if are showing signs of hidden hearing loss.
In “Living loud in China’s lively public spaces,”Stephen McDonell, BBC News, writes about noise in China’s bustling cities. McDonnell states that “[t]here is something incredible about the way in which societies, cities, subcultures find their level in terms of acceptable public volume.” For example, he notes that there are “bustling cities – rammed with millions of people – where you could be frowned upon for disrupting others with a raised voice: Seoul, London, Tokyo… especially Tokyo.” But McDonnell has lived the last 12 years living in China, where, he notes:
There are some societies where people are expected to avoid being noisy in public and they behave accordingly. Then there’s China.
He describes the “cacophony of chaos” he experiences in a cafe, where someone “starts a phone call at the top of their voice,” as two buddies loudly play video games on their phones, and “a young convert to Christianity sits down next to [him] and starts praying” just as a nearby “hippie looking Chinese bloke has booted up his laptop and Coldplay starts belting out of the speakers.” This experience is not atypical, he writes, and adds that, looking around, “nobody but me has reacted as if this is anything but completely normal.”
Interestingly, he says that there is only one other city where he has seen this phenomenon–New York–where he describes a similar experience in a diner. McDonell ponders, “[m]aybe you have to speak up in order to be heard amongst a huge population?” That is, maybe it’s the space and not just the culture that determines the “acceptable public volume?” After all, he asks, “what noise does a Chinese farmer have to compete in the field?”