Tag Archive: anxiety

Rethinking sirens during the pandemic

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

Councilperson Helen Rosenthal and several other members of the New York City Council have introduced legislation to alter the tones of the city’s ambulance and vehicle sirens so that they would be in line with those used in European countries. The European sirens, we have been told, are just as effective but not as shrill as the city sirens that are  offensive and disturbing to New York City residents. In response to residents living near Mount Sinai hospital who have complained about the hospital’s sirens for years, the hospital did play different sirens at a community meeting last year and, indeed, the European ‘high-low’ tone was judged the least offensive.

Yet, the intrusive sirens continue to be used in New York City. This despite the fact, as Julia Vitullo-Martin writes in her article “Sirens and Suffering: Rethinking the Soundtrack of the Coronavirus Crisis, ”that these excessively loud sirens are both a health risk to emergency responders themselves as well as nearby residents exposed to these loud sounds.”

The traditional argument for dangerously loud sirens has been the need to move traffic so that emergency vehicles can get to their destinations as quickly as possible. Yet, with the pandemic slowing city traffic considerably, why must New Yorkers be subjected to these? With so many people now confined to their homes, more New Yorkers have become aware of these “much too loud” sirens. In addition to being a health hazard before the pandemic, these frequent sirens have engendered even greater anxiety in New Yorkers who view them as reminders of the illnesses and deaths brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

Vitullo-Martin uses the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic to question the city’s justification in retaining these offensive blaring sirens. Why with traffic down, are the sirens still sounding like jet takeoffs? With fewer vehicles on the road, do you really need the blaring sirens to tell the cars and trucks to move over? Supposedly, there are protocols to direct drivers when to use full sirens. Vitullo-Martin suggests the pandemic might get city planners to rethink traffic patterns in a way that would make it less difficult for emergency vehicles to get to their destinations. And the City Council legislation on the high-low tone sirens may have a better chance of passing.

I know the coronovirus pandemic has been more than a horrific experience for New Yorkers but it is out of such experiences that new ideas to improve the health and well-being of citizens come forth. As Vitullo-Martin suggests, one such idea may lead to fewer health-hazardous emergency vehicle sirens.

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.

The CDC issues report on noise-induced hearing loss

and the facts are frightening. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control’s (CDC) current issue of Vital Signs focuses on the dangers of noise on hearing health.  Among other things, the report states that:

  • 40 million Americans aged 20-69 years old have noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Hearing loss is the third most common chronic health condition in the US, and almost twice as many people report hearing loss as report diabetes or cancer.
  • 1 in 2 American adults with hearing damage from noise did not get it exposure to noise at work. Noise outside of work can be as damaging as workplace noise.
  • Too much loud noise, whatever the source, causes permanent hearing loss.
  • 1 in 4 Americans who report excellent hearing have hearing damage.  You can have hearing loss without knowing it.
  • The louder the sound, and the longer you are exposed to it, the more likely it will damage your hearing permanently.
  • Continual exposure to noise can cause stress, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, and many other health problems.

This fascinating if distressing report comes with easy to understand graphs and charts that clearly explain the dangers of noise exposure, who is most at risk, the high cost of hearing loss, how hearing loss occurs, and, most importantly, what can be done to prevent NIHL.  Because, in the end, one point is crystal clear: noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable.

As if air and water pollution weren’t enough:

Noise pollution from fracking may harm human health.  Brett Israel, UC Berkeley News, writes that “[f]racking creates noise at levels high enough to harm the health of people living nearby, according to the first peer-reviewed study to analyze the potential public health impacts of ambient noise related to fracking.”  What kind of health impacts?  The researchers found that “noise from fracking operations may contribute to adverse health outcomes in three categories, including anxiety, sleep disturbance and cardiovascular disease or other conditions that are negatively impacted by stress.”  One more reason to end fracking.  Click the link for a detailed description of the “complex symphony of noise types” associated with fracking activity.

An audiologist explains why noise is much more than a mere annoyance.

In “Why City Noise Is a Serious Health Hazard,” Eric Jaffe writes about noise in New York City.  His piece extensively quotes Craig Kasper, chief audiologist at New York Hearing Doctors, who notes how persistent noise complaints have been, citing a 1905 headline in the Times claiming New York to be “the noisiest city on earth.”  Kasper also discusses all of the ways in which noise adversely affects health and wellbeing (e.g., loss of sleep, anxiety, cardiovascular difficulties, etc.), adding that his patients “complain of loud restaurants the most.”  Oddly, this otherwise thoughtful piece concludes with Kasper stating that “noise adds to the charm of New York—and, really, any big city.”  It’s hard to accept that something as potentially damaging as noise can be described as charming.  Still, this short piece is worth a read.