You are not the only one. Jess Bidgood, The New York Times introduces us to Dennis Follensbee, a programmer from New Hampshire, who is on “an exhaustive search for the noiseless hollows and dells of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.” The good news is that Follensbee has mapped 23 quiet places to date. The bad news is that he will only share this information with family and “close friends,” because “[i]f quiet places are widely known, he reasons, ‘they cease to be quiet.’”
But despite keeping his information secret, formerly quiet places have been found and are being “enjoyed” by those who love noise. Writes Bidgood,”people whose passions make noise — like snowmobilers and motorcyclists — say they, too, have the right to enjoy the wilderness.” That is, they believe they have the right to make as much noise as they want because they like it, and they are seemingly unburdened by the needs of others who go to the wilderness to enjoy natural sounds. Bidgood speaks to a 75-year old motorcyclist who finds the noise he creates “thrilling,” saying that it is “part of the attraction.”
Which suggests, sadly, that Mr. Follensbee list will likely see some subtraction. One can only hope that in some future enlightened time (ed: it could happen) those who are entrusted with protecting our natural spaces understand that it includes the natural soundscape.
Winnie Hu, The New York Times, writes about the number one complaint in the city, noise, in, “New York Becomes the City That Never Shuts Up.” And we discover that the short answer to the question as to why the city is so noisy may be this: New York City needs more noise enforcers.
Hu interviews Richard T. McIntosh, a long-time resident of the Upper East Side who complains that he “has never heard such a racket outside his window.” Hu writes:
New York City has never been kind to human ears, from its screeching subways and honking taxis to wailing police sirens. But even at its loudest, there were always relatively tranquil pockets like the Upper East Side that offered some relief from the day-to-day cacophony of the big city. Those pockets are vanishing.
Construction is a huge factor in the increase in noise, but residents can’t escape outdoor noise by ducking into noisy city restaurants, gyms, and stores. And noise complaints have increased even after the city adopted an overhauled noise code in 2007. So what can be done? Hu writes that city councilman Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side, “has made curbing noise one of his top priorities,” adding that “[h]e and Costa Constantinides, a councilman from Queens, are proposing legislation that targets some of the most grating sounds by requiring city noise inspectors to respond within two hours when possible to catch noisemakers in the act.”
Hu reports that while “the Police Department handles the vast majority of noise complaints, inspectors with the Department of Environmental Protection also investigate mechanical sources and environmental noise, including after-hours construction, air-conditioners and ventilation equipment, alarms and even barking dogs.” So how many inspectors does the Department of Environmental Protection have? Only 54 for a city of over 8 million residents. Apparently 8 more inspectors are going to be hired this year, bringing the total number of inspectors for all five boroughs to meager 62. And the response time is equally appalling. Hu reports that median response for police officers was 152 minutes, but the median response “for noise inspectors was four days in 2016.”
With construction noise before and after hours being the top complaint in every borough except for Staten Island, it’s unreasonable to expect noise violators to change their behavior when an inspector may show up four days after a noise complaint is filed. Indeed, a recent audit of New York City noise complaints by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli found that bars and nightclubs with “hundreds of complaints lodged against them faced little or no repercussions.”
City councilman Kallos believes that increasing the number of noise inspectors “would not only deter noise but also result in more violations and fines that would offset the cost of the legislation.” Kallos adds that “[i]t is time for the city to hire as many noise inspectors as it takes to respond to complaints when they happen.” We agree. We also agree with Dr. Arline Bronzaft, Chair of Noise Committee for Grow NYC, who notes that “with eight inspectors being hired soon, apparently we do not need legislation to hire inspectors, we just need the money for increased hires to be added to the budget NOW.”
If you live in New York City and want to see Kallos’ and Constantinides’ proposed legislation move forward, contact your city council person and ask him or her to sign on. While you’re at it, ask your councilperson what his or her answer is to New York City’s noise problem. Not sure who represents you in the city council? Click here to find out. If you reach out to your councilperson’s office, please report back and tell us how they responded in the comments.
Paula Span, the New York Times, writes about legislation making its way through Congress that could make hearing aids cheaper and more accessible. Currently, people needing hearing aids must spend at least $1,500 to $2,000 per hearing aid–double that for a pair–because the price includes bundled audiology services. But under the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017, the Food and Drug Administration would be charged with creating “a regulatory category for [over-the-counter] devices and to establish standards for safety, effectiveness and labeling.”
One reason hearing aids would be significantly cheaper if this bill is enacted is that consumers would not have to go to an audiologist to get them, as they are required to do today. Rather, consumers could opt to purchase audiology services to help adjust each device, but they wouldn’t be required to do so.
And lowering the cost is important as hearing aid wearers tend to be older and “Medicare coverage of hearing aids [is] prohibited by law.” But can consumers adequately adjust their own hearing aids? Swan reports on an Indiana University double-blind clinical trial where researchers worked with participants who never wore hearing aids before. The researchers “compared the experiences of those randomly assigned to full-bore audiology services and those making over-the-counter selections,” and determined that “[i]t didn’t matter whether the audiologist fitted them or the consumer made his own choice…[t]hey both were effective, and they didn’t differ.” Given that hearing loss has a profound effect on overall health and not just hearing health, providing a low-cost option to seniors makes a lot of sense.
But Daniel Fink, MD, Chair of The Quiet Coalition, says that hearing aids do not work as well as people may suspect, which is why many people who have them rarely use them. Rather than focusing all of our attention and resources on treating hearing loss after it occurs, Dr. Fink believes we should also be focusing our efforts on preventing hearing loss in the first instance. As Dr. Fink notes, noise causes hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis, and we could greatly diminish the instances of these disorders by reasonably regulating noise and making people aware that loud sound today means hearing loss tomorrow.
On December 16, 2016, an article appeared in the New York Times, Americans’ Hearing Loss Decreases Even With Ubiquitous Headphones, which focused on a study by Howard J. Hoffman, MA, et al. (Hoffman) that appeared in the respected medical journal JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery. The study found that there was a declining prevalence of hearing loss in U.S. adults. The results were considered surprising, as the study showed that the rate of hearing loss in adults age 20-69 had decreased from 15.9% to 14.1%. The researchers, epidemiologists, and statisticians at the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, who conducted the study, are among the best in the world, and the data came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s well-respected National Health and Nutrition Surgery.
The results were considered surprising because two other recent federal reports, one in October 2015 from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and the other in June 2016 from the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine (IOM) (since renamed the Health and Medicine Division), emphasized that hearing loss, especially in older Americans, was a major national problem. Both of these reports cited an analysis by Frank Lin, MD PhD, Johns Hopkins University, that showed that 48 million Americans suffered significant hearing loss, with the prevalence increasing sharply with age.
I am personally involved in the question of what the facts are, since in an editorial in the January 2017 issue of the American Journal of Public Health I write about the inappropriate use of the 85 decibel occupational noise exposure standard, which should not be applied to the general public, citing Lin’s research and other studies that show increased hearing loss in young people age 12-19.
So, what do the data really show?
I am not an epidemiology expert like Mr. Hoffman and his distinguished co-authors. Their methods appear sound, their data sources as good as one can find in the epidemiology of hearing loss. The first caveat is that this study, as with all studies of the epidemiology of hearing loss in the pubic, is based on survey methodology. A group of 3831 participants are the study population, from which conclusions about the entire U.S. population were drawn. It would be too costly to test hearing in millions of people.
The second caveat is that there are newer techniques, currently only used in research and not yet in clinical use, demonstrating that before hearing loss can be detected by standard hearing tests (called pure tone audiometry), a phenomenon dubbed “hidden hearing loss” may have taken place. Hidden hearing loss has been found in young people and older adults. So while Hoffman’s study is encouraging, it may not be able to completely report what is really happening with Americans’ hearing.
The third point–not a caveat–is that Hoffman et al. studied adults age 20-69 and did not include young people under age 20. Those under age 20 may be the group most at risk of hearing loss due to ubiquitous use of personal music players at loud volumes. Two studies, using lower thresholds for measuring hearing loss than Hoffman et al. or Lin et al. used, found high levels of subclinical hearing loss (hearing loss greater than 15 decibels but less than 25 decibels) in young Americans. One from 1998 found that 15% of young people had measurable hearing loss, and the other from 2010 showed an increase in the prevalence of hearing loss to almost 20%. This is worrisome because studies of auditory acuity in young people traditionally found excellent hearing.
The fourth point also isn’t a caveat, but a quote from the last line of Hoffman’s abstract: “Despite the benefit of delayed onset of HI (hearing impairment), hearing health care needs will increase as the US population grows and ages.”
It’s great news that the percentage of Americans age 20-69 with hearing loss (the epidemiology term for this is “prevalence”) has decreased from 15.9% to 14.1%. But that still means that there are millions of Americans with hearing loss–and that’s too many! Further, subclinical hearing loss appears to be increasing in young Americans, and, as the Hoffman study notes, hearing loss in older Americans is a significant health problem.
Finally, a point of contention: noise exposure is a major cause of hearing loss, and not aging as is implied in the study. Why would men have nearly twice as much hearing impairment (18.6%) as women (9.6%)? Is it an effect of testosterone levels on the auditory system, in which case one might actually expect hearing to improve as men get older, or is it the result of more noise exposure from work and recreational activities in men than women? Noise and hearing loss are still major problems in the U.S. and in the world, and the non-auditory effects of noise on health, which are coming into greater focus, continue unabated.
So yes, the prevalence of hearing loss in American adults may be declining, but when Lin’s analysis showed that approximately 25% of adults in their 60s, 33% of adults in their 70s, and half of those over age 80 have significant hearing loss–data cited in the PCAST and IOM Committee reports–it is obvious that there is still a major problem and still much to be done to prevent noise-induced hearing loss here and abroad.
And I and others have said before, but it bears repeating: noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable. If people avoid noise exposure and protect their ears from noise, they should be able to preserve natural hearing well into old age, rather than needing to rely on assistive hearing devices. The only evidence-based safe noise level remains a 70-decibel time-weighted average for a 24-hour period.
Dr. 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 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.
To Create a Quieter City, They’re Recording the Sounds of New York. Emily S. Rueb, The New York Times, reports on the Sounds of New York City, or Sonyc, a joint project by New York University and Ohio State University, which aims to create an aural map that “will help city agencies monitor and enforce noise pollution, and will empower citizens to assist in the process.” Researchers from both universities “are training [their] microphones to recognize jackhammers, idling engines and street music, using technology originally developed to identify the flight calls of migrating birds.” Ten-second snippets of audio will be collected, labeled, and categorized “using a machine-listening engine called UrbanEars.” The researchers hope that the sensors “will eventually be smart enough to identify hundreds of sonic irritants reverberating across the city.”
The program, which is in the first phase of the five-year project, is primarily funded by a $4.6 milion grant from the National Science Foundation. The article explains how the researchers are capturing the audio snippets, examines the problems inherent in placing the devices used to monitor noise (read: pigeon poop, among other things), and discusses the “antagonizing effects of noise.” Rueb looks at how the data may be used to help address noise complaints, writing that eventually “an app called Urbane will allow users to interact with the data, while another app will complement 311 reporting and possibly help New Yorkers track how complaints are handled.”
One hopes the program is a success because, as Rueb tells us, the city has only 53 noise inspectors to serve all five boroughs. It will be interesting to see if the city, armed with the program’s data, will make a serious attempt to enforce its noise ordinances.