Tag Archive: David M. Sykes

Why the FAA Reauthorization Act has not fixed airport noise

Burbank, California is a case in point that the FAA Reauthorization Act, signed by Trump in October 2018, hasn’t solved the airport noise problem.

Photo credit: Elizabeth K. Joseph licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

Five years ago, 36 members of Congress, together with 36 community groups across the U.S., organized the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus and the National Quiet Skies Coalition to focus Congress on the Federal Aviation Administration’s flawed launch of NextGen, a program that has plagued communities with excessive noise and pollution—including Burbank, California.

This was a consequence of the Senate’s impatience about the stalled launch of NextGen. The transportation committee demanded to know why this program was stalled. The FAA complained that they were “slowed down by the requirement that we do neighborhood environmental impact studies.” To accelerate this program, Congress said STOP doing the studies; don’t collect complaints.

Burbank is one example of dozens of communities across the U.S. whose residents endure the aftermath. Other American cities affected include Washington DC, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Phoenix, San Francisco and many others. Most are represented on the Caucus.

NextGen was a good idea. Simply put, it aims to direct flights via satellite navigation, so air traffic will be more efficient and more airplanes will be able to use the same airspace, increasing safety, capacity and fuel efficiency. But Congress gave the FAA permission to ignore neighborhoods beneath the new, more tightly-controlled flight paths. Their lives have been seriously affected. For example, in Burbank, the flight paths changed from being over a freeway to being over neighborhoods—disrupting the lives of the people who live beneath the new flight paths. A new task force is being formed in Burbank to address the issue.

What should they do? Contact Congressman Adam Schiff and the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus. Why? In October 2018, Schiff and the other members of that group trumpeted their “success” in getting the FAA to address community noise complaints by inserting specific changes in the “FAA Reauthorization Act” signed into law by president Trump. But those changes haven’t fixed the problem. So Burbank’s citizens need to take this problem back to Congress.

Warning: the “FAA Re-Authorization Act” also authorized dramatic expansions of the use of drones—so if you see a pizza being noisily delivered by drone to your neighbor’s door, blame the members of Congress who let this happen.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Refuge from noise for autistic kids and adults

Photo credit: John Marino has dedicated this photo to the public domain

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

America is awakening to the special needs of kids and adults on the autism spectrum. Many are hyper-reactive to environmental noise.

A few shopping centers have introduced “quiet hours” specifically aimed at families with autistic children. Now a few airports are getting the message too.

For example, Lonely Planet reports that Pittsburgh International Airport has opened a 500 square foot “sensory room” called Presley’s Place where traveling families with autistic members can calm down and get ready to fly or de-compress after landing.

For some of us, finding a quiet place is a quest, something we simply enjoy. But for others, it’s an essential need! Let’s hope other airports get the message soon.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Noise in hospitals? The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is listening

Photo credit: Sara Star NS licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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

For those of us who’ve been working for decades on the tough problem of noise in hospitals—specifically the effects of that noise on patients, physicians, families, and staff—news that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supported the work of popular podcast 99% Invisible’s inquiry into this problem begets mixed emotions. Finally, major foundations are listening!

Believe me, we welcome their interest! What better place to study the effects of noise on human health than in hospitals? If any professional group is able to carefully examine health effects and tease apart causality, shouldn’t it be medical professionals, both clinicians and researchers?

My colleagues and I have been enthusiastic about working with hospital staffs on noise and health for 18 years now. But frankly, it’s been extremely difficult to find foundations and government agencies willing to fund this kind of trans-disciplinary work. Why? Because it’s expensive and hard to assemble a team of researchers drawn from several different disciplines like medicine and acoustical science–the two groups barely speak the same language. But one of our proudest efforts did just that, the so-called Harvard Sleep Study, and it has become important because of its rarity.

That study, which began in 2006 and was published in 2012, discovered and described something we all know intuitively: that individual sounds, like musical notes, or alarm noises, or mechanical equipment or passing aircraft, are very different from each other and can’t be described with a single metric like the decibel rating. Indeed, the ability of a particular noise to arouse you from sleep depends more on the characteristics of that sound, rather than it’s decibel rating.

The decibel rating scheme records only sound-energy levels—that’s the energy that can physically harm your ears and your auditory system. But the decibel rating scheme does not, and indeed cannot, account for other noise effects such as a stress reaction, which can lead to cardiovascular problems or annoyance.  For example, a neighbor’s barking dog, a passing aircraft, or someone using a leaf blower near your house may be very annoying and may even disrupt your sleep, but is it loud enough to harm your hearing?

So it should come as no surprise that there is an alternative approach to measuring the many effects of noise. This alternative approach, called psychoacoustics, has been around nearly as long as the decibel rating scheme, but while it’s been embraced outside the U.S., it has had virtually no effect in this country. Psychoacoustics, also called supplemental metrics, emerged in the U.S. seven decades ago, but then emigrated to the European Unon. The classic work in this field is called “Psychoacoustics” by Fastl and Zwicker.

In the U.S., work on psychoacoustics had virtually no effect on the field of noise control until last year, when Congress included a requirement in the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act that the Department of Transportation and the FAA begin using alternative metrics in their evaluations of the effects of noise on people in neighborhoods under airport flight paths.

If you’ve installed a free sound meter app on your smartphone, all you can measure is decibels (dB). At best you might be able to measure decibels with different weightings, e.g., dBA, dBB and dBC (the A, B and C versions adjust the dB scale to approximate human hearing or other dimensions of sound). But if you own a professional sound level meter, you can probably choose either one of the decibel scales, or an alternative called Sone. Do decibels and Sone measure the same things? in a word, no. Psychoacoustics measurements account for a variety of different aspects of sounds well beyond sound pressure levels.

The difference is as great, for example, as using a thermometer to take your body temperature versus using standard instruments to collect all of your vital signs and take a sample of your blood. That thermometer that takes your body temperature is a single indicator. The rest of your vital signs are something else entirely.

It’s exciting that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded a podcast that considers metrics beyond decibels and considers some of the other vital signs that determine how the hospital soundscape affects patients and staff. Curiously, the researchers cited in this podcast don’t appear to be aware that there is already a well-defined, long-established set of metrics for doing so. One hopes they are not wasting time—and a foundation’s money–“reinventing the wheel,” ignoring the methods developed over many decades in the field of psychoacoustics.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Sacred space? Museum journal devotes special issue to sound

Photo credit: Negative Space

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

Do you think of museums and zoos as places of quiet, refuge and reflection? Sure, who doesn’t? They’re invaluable when you need thinking time or just a respite from the noisy, chaotic world outside. Then this introduction to a special issue of the journal Curator will interest you. Turns out museum directors and curators have grown more interested in this subject recently—so interested that Curator’s editors devoted an entire issue of their journal to sound and noise.

Inspiring them to address this topic was The Quiet Coalition’s co-founder Arline Bronzaft, PhD, an indefatigable researcher and anti-noise advocate from New York City—and New York City is definitely a place where world-class museums offer respite and reward to millions of people. This special issue compiles 18 papers from several decades of work by researchers and museum curators on how to use quiet and sound as part of the museum experience. Here’s what journal editor John Fraser has to say:

Today, this special double issue of Curator seeks to bring to the attention of museum leaders the value of listening to our museums. Museums may be more focused on listening to their visitors, but the papers on the following pages suggest that we have a long way to go to ensure that all senses are considered an essential part of all museum experiences.

I found it fascinating, for example that the reverberant sound from the walls of a zoo enclosure significantly increased the aggressiveness of–and diminished the sexual behavior of–rhinoceros females. What lessons might we infer about humans’ increasingly violent and aggressive behavior in the crowded, glass-walled, reverberant canyons of modern city streets?

Wonderful, voluminous reading from an unexpected and very well-informed perspective. Enjoy!

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S123-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Philadelphia deploys sonic weapons to harass loitering teenagers

“The Mosquito” | Photo credit: Sunmist dedicated this photograph to the public domain

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

According to this report on NPR, the city of Philadelphia is one of several cities that have been deploying “sonic weapons” in public parks to deter loitering by teenagers, who, because they’re young enough to have unimpaired hearing, are keenly sensitive to the high-frequency noise emitted by the devices.

The devices were developed by a Vancouver BC-based company called Moving Sound Technologies. The company’s president is quoted in the piece describing the product, which he calls “the Mosquito.” Also quoted are young people who say the noise is loud, and, in one instance, causes headaches.

There are quite a number of sonic weapons available on the market, often developed for military use, but now in the hands of police forces too. The 40-year-long refusal in the U.S. to understand that noise can—like second-hand smoke–be harmful to health has led many to assume that sonic weapons are harmless and merely annoying. That’s fundamentally wrong. In the meantime, city councils and neighborhood associations need to be vigilant about local police forces adopting such crowd-control methods that could be harmful to public health and just bad policy.  As Philadelphia councilwoman Helen Gym notes, “[i]n a city that is trying to address gun violence and safe spaces for young people, how dare we come up with ideas that are funded by taxpayer dollars that turn young people away from the very places that were created for them?”

We live in a noisy world—an unnecessarily noisy world—for the simple reason that most people, including our local and national leaders, have no idea that noise really is “the new second-hand smoke.” Until we get them to understand that the public is being harmed by environmental noise, we need to look after ourselves and our neighbors.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S123-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Noise or tinnitus causing sleep loss? There’s an app for that….

Photo credit: Alyssa L. Miller licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

The New York Times is published in one of the noisiest cities in the world, so it’s no surprise that some of their reporters—like everybody else living in New York City–have trouble sleeping and are looking for solutions. Some of those same reporters also suffer from tinnitus, often caused by exposure to loud noises.

Two New York Times articles explore smartphone-based apps that promise better sleep through mindfulness or meditation training. If this sounds fishy to you, suspend your disbelief because there’s quite a bit of research on this subject. In fact, the Veterans Administration’s National Center for Rehabilitative Auditory Research in Portland, Oregon recommends some of these approaches. That’s not surprising, as military veterans suffer disproportionately from hearing disorders like tinnitus owing to exposure to firearms and explosive devices. As a result, the Department of Defense and the Veteran’s Administration have spent quite a bit of effort on both prevention and treatment because tinnitus is one of the top two service-related disabilities, costing billions every year.

My point is this: getting a good night’s rest is essential to everyone’s health. If you live in a noisy or distracting environment, actually going to sleep and then sleeping soundly through the night may require some combination of the following three things:

  1. Good hearing protection, like a really good pair of earplugs or even sound-deadening ear-muffs;
  2. Some sort of continuous background sound-making device that plays soothing sounds like ocean waves or rainfall; and
  3. Some mindfulness training to help you get to sleep.

If you suffer from tinnitus, you may also want to look into the VA’s Tinnitus Retraining Therapy program, which teaches people to re-direct their attention away from the non-stop ringing and buzzing in their ears that is characteristic of tinnitus and focus on other subjects.

If you feel like experimenting, try some of the apps mentioned by the New York Times reporters and please tell us if they help.

In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI’s Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI’s Committee S123-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation’s Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Columbia project on hearing loss focuses on the brain

Photo Credit: This U.S. Army graphic is in the public domain

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

The hearing loss space is attracting investment again after nearly four decades of being starved for funding. New York City’s Columbia University is working on a project that shows us what investors are looking into: the hidden parts of hearing that involve brain circuitry.

The Columbia project, unlike some of the others I’ve discussed before, won’t deliver anything practical for a very long time, but it’s still pretty interesting. Until recently hearing researchers focused on the ear and assumed that was the important part. But it turns out that the wiring between the ear and brain, specifically the regions of the brain involved in hearing, is where the action is now. In part, that’s because there’s been such a surge of federal and private money pouring into brain research over the past decade.

The Columbia research team is looking at how they might train hearing aids to distinguish the voices of specific people—the people you want to hear and nobody else. Right now, that would involve implanting electrodes into your brain–that’s what happens if you get a cochlear implant–but they’re hoping to be able to do this eventually with external devices.

What the researchers are addressing is what’s known as the Lombard Effect, discovered a century ago by the French physician Etienne Lombard, and also known as the “cocktail party effect.” It’s one of the first signs of hearing loss and consists of an inability to understand “speech-in-noise.” Example: you’re in a noisy space like a club or a party, and you’re trying to understand what your companion is saying but you’re unable to do so because of the background noise. Sound familiar? If so, you–like nearly 50 million Americans–have hearing loss.

No, there’s nothing you can do about it. Not yet. So we recommend you follow this Columbia project to see what happens next.

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.

Restaurant noise? For the hearing impaired, that’s discrimination

Photo credit: Dmitry Zvolskiy from Pexels

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

Citing noise as discrimination, Joyce Cohen, writing for the Washington Post, goes after the restaurant industry. I’m grateful that Ms. Cohen relied on The Quiet Coalition Chair, Dr. Daniel Fink, in this terrific piece, and that she did her homework to get the facts straight.

I hope this kind of reporting will lead to changes in the restaurant industry, which, thanks to Yelp and Zagat and restaurant reviewers at newspapers like the Washington Post, are showing that noise is the number one complaint of restaurant goers. Let’s hope that restaurant owners are finally waking up to the fact that too much noise is actually bad for business.

And congratulations to the Washington Post for taking on this industry and it’s egregious practices! This article has certainly opened up the conversation about restaurant noise and disability.

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.

Can Acoustic metamaterials rescue your hearing?

Photo credit: Office of Naval Research licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

Boston University’s work on acoustic metamaterials is quite interesting, but it’s a long way from being available in stores if you’re concerned about hearing loss, as you should be.

Acoustic metamaterials are an exciting if little-known area of research and development that hold promise for much better, i.e., lighter, less bulky, ways to stop noise from destroying your hearing or disrupting your sleep or concentration.

The article caught my attention because I used to teach at BU, though I don’t know this research team. And I’ve also done some grant-funded work on other acoustic metamaterials in the research lab I co-founded at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. So I am very interested in this subject.

But I mainly want to say this: The most important work on noise control right now is going on at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where leadership recognized two years ago that noise is, indeed, a serious public health hazard. That’s huge—because it brings noise out of the dark shadow it’s been hidden under at Environmental Protection Agency since 1981. The CDC’s recognition is what has triggered interest in research on a variety of solutions., and its interest should trigger funding for:

  1. Widespread work on reducing noise at the source (such as noise from airports, highways, railways, construction and \ maintenance equipment, household appliances, headphones, etc.), and
  2. Reducing noise at the receiver (such as noise-cancellation headphones or more effective, lighter, or less bulky ways to block sound from destroying your hearing).

We’ve already seen two pieces of national bi-partisan legislation pass without a fight: the 2017 bi-partisan Warren-Grassley OTC Hearing Aid Act, and the 2018 FAA Re-Authorization Act. And at the local level, a number of cities and towns have taken up the battle: Washington DC, New York City, Southampton, New York, S. Pasadena, and others.

In fact, it feels like the tide has turned on this issue after a 38-year hiatus and hearing loss is now beginning to be recognized as a serious public health hazard. But don’t wait for this BU group to commercialize their work on acoustic metamaterials because that could be decades away. Go and buy a good pair of ear plugs or a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones AND a good pair of over-the-ear “ear muffs” (they can be found at hunting or hardware stores). Then train your family members, even the youngest children, that hearing is precious and must be protected.

Sound is like the air you breathe: omnipresent, invisible, necessary, but also potentially hazardous. Nobody will protect you if you don’t protect yourself.

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.

NYC helicopter crash shows risks of Uber’s “urban air-taxi” fantasy

Photo credit: Beyond My Ken licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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

Today, The New York Times reported on a helicopter crash atop a midtown Manhattan skyscraper that left one person dead. The copter exploded, presumably throwing debris onto the streets below, though there are no reports of injuries on the streets below. One hundred emergency workers were called out.

We’ve written about the enthusiastic visions promulgated by Uber, NASA and others, for vast fleets of small “inter-urban air taxis” that use vertical take-off and landing. My concern, of course, is the increase in noise implied—even if these “air taxis” are electrically propelled. But the accident reported today shows the significant risk of crashes and potentially lethal debris falling on people in the streets below.

Last October, the 36-member Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus celebrated a significant achievement: passage of the FAA Re-Authorization Act which included several important clauses concerning the national problem of aircraft/airport noise. The reason we wrote about the Uber/NASA’s “air taxi” fantasy was because we hoped this group of members of Congress would realize that the battle to reduce aircraft noise and other dangers has now expanded to include roof-top heliports in densely populated urban centers like Manhattan, from which this next generation of small, electric VTOL aircraft could be deployed sometime in the near future.

The Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus needs to get back to work on this problem before Uber’s fantasy becomes our reality!

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.