Tag Archive: noise

Better Hearing Month 2017 and the problem of noise

By David Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Every year since 1927, May has been designated “Better Hearing Month.” What better time to think about what threatens your hearing health? In fact, if you already have some hearing loss you’re one of about 48 million Americans—that’s many more than all of the people with cancer or diabetes combined.

That’s a big number, and yet hearing loss—specifically noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL)–has been overlooked and underfunded for three and a half decades.

Noise is such a simple word–why is it so complex and laden with jargon and specialists who don’t talk to one another? One group is solely concerned with how to measure it (physicists). Other groups focus on specific types and sources of noise, such as jet aircraft, or alarmed medical devices, or leaf blowers, or trains, or highway noise (engineers or advocacy groups). Others concentrate on the effects of noise on humans (doctors and public health researchers), while another group ponders how noise affects organisms other than humans, including plants, birds and other animal species, including those that live underwater (biologists). Still other groups think about how to mitigate noise (architects and designers).

The problem is that over the past three and a half decades, the subject of noise and it’s effects have been systematically ignored and underfunded by Congress and the White House. As a result, “noise”–the cause of NIHL–has become a bewilderingly fragmented field in which few people talk to others outside their own specialities. This has resulted in a subject that is hard to understand and laden with technical jargon. What is “noise”? Why does it matter? Who cares? Has the science progressed? If so, how and where?

But recently that has begun to change thanks to advances in research and to changes in federal policies from several federal agencies that have not traditionally been involved in noise and noise control. These include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NASA, the Department of Health and Humans Services, the Department of Interior, the General Services Administration, the Joint Commission, and others.

In each case, a specific federal department has bitten off a chunk of the noise problem and developed guidelines and programs to fit their own needs. But put all of these disparate pieces together and you will find examples of real progress despite the fragmentation.

To help build general understanding, we ar the The Quiet Coalition have assembled some of these fragments into a diagram or a “Road Map” of noise effects (see chart above) organized by the way they are studied within various specialized fields. We hope this Road Map helps others see the big picture.

In addition to the Road Map, we have also assembled the basic facts about noise into a simple one-page “Fact Sheet” that provides detailed references to scientific literature. Both the Fact Sheet and the Road Map are starting points. At The Quiet Coalition, our goal is to synthesize the underlying scientific research on this complex and fragmented subject into a coherent picture so that we can collectively find ways to talk about it. We hope you find both the Fact Sheet and the Road Map useful as you think about hearing, hearing loss, and that elusive problem, noise.

The underlying question for each of us should be: how can we work together?

David Sykes chairs/co-chairs four national professional groups in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, ANSI S12 WG44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group. He is also a board member of the American Tinnitus Association, co-founder of the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), and a contributor to “Technology for a Quieter America” (2011, National Academy of Engineering). 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.

Because the world isn’t noisy enough, someone created fidget spinners

Photo credit: Charmingco licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

But no worries, reason prevails: Fidget spinners banned from schools for making too much noise. For the uninitiated, a fidget spinner is a “palm-sized spinner containing ball bearings which can be flicked and spun around.” And why do they exist (other than to torment us)?  Actually, they were designed to help students with ADHD and autism and it’s thought that they help with concentration, but they became “a fad after YouTube bloggers gathered millions of views by performing tricks with them.”  So students who were playing with fidget spinners for fun and not to help them concentrate were interfering with students trying to concentrate.  While the linked story was about a ban at a UK school, you’ll be glad to know that fidget spinners are also banned in 32% of the largest high schools in the U.S. So far.

What can you do about noisy neighbors?

Photo credit: Denise Cheng licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Derby Telegraph offers some guidance for dealing with the neighbor in love with his leaf blower or outdoor audio system. While some of the suggestions may not translate well–the Derby Telegraph is a UK newspaper–some will. Namely, the first suggestion is dead on, unless, that is, you have reason to know that your neighbor is unstable or obnoxious on purpose:

[T]he first thing you should always do is speak to the person causing the noise. Most of the time they don’t realise they are causing a nuisance and are usually happy to change what they are doing.

If reason does not prevail, the article provides a link to the Derby City Council website and walks the reader through the process of filing a noise complaint online. We have some catching up to do in the U.S., but there are communities with mechanisms to complain about noise, like New York City’s 311 system. But if there isn’t a reasonable way to file a complaint where you live, find out who represents your ward or neighborhood and ask him or her to propose one. There should be a process to address noise and other complaints that comes between constituents seething in impotent rage and calling the cops as a first measure.

And we don’t know about you, but we learned one very interesting fact from this article: Germany has “strict ‘quiet hours’…between 8pm and 7am and all day Sundays and holidays.” Then again, we shouldn’t be surprised, as “Germany’s love of silence led to the first earplug.”

Mallgoers would rather deal with pigeon poop than noise

Photo credit: Fritz Park licensed under CC BY 2.0

Mary Beth Quirk, the Consumerist, reports that “shoppers at one New York mall would rather risk getting hit by bird droppings than listen to the sounds coming out of the complex’s speakers.”  Apparently officials at the Rego Center Mall in Queens, New York City, installed a sound system “that blast[ed] noisy bird calls every 30 seconds or so,” to deal with an infestation of pigeons that were nesting and defecating near one of the mall entrances. But the law of unintended consequences prevailed, as the noise got on many shoppers’ last nerve.  One shopper, who claimed that he had “been pooped on previously at the mall,” said that he preferred “the risk of falling feces to the noise coming out of the mall speakers.”

 

 

Open plan offices: Good or Bad? Harvard Business Review weighs in.

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

When Harvard Business Review (HBR) speaks, people listen, including those who sit in executive suites. A series of articles published in HBR about noise and distractions in open plan offices may be changing some minds. Reductions in productivity attributed to noise and distraction related to open plan designs may finally be getting the attention of corporate leaders.

Over the past several decades, open-plan offices became fashionable. If you didn’t like them, you’d be bucking a trend. Why did this type of office design become a hot topic in the executive suite? Three trends collided:

  1. “Sick-building-syndrome” became a serious, costly issue blamed on chemicals in carpets and paints, inoperable windows, and poor air circulation;
  2. Corporate leaders decided they had too much overhead (hint: expensive trophy headquarters and high end real estate); and
  3. The U.S. Department of Energy established a huge initiative to increase energy efficiency and cut costs.

Suddenly walls, carpets, fancy wood furniture, cubicles and even lightbulbs were dumped. Windows were re-opened. Dramatically branded front offices concealed cavernous, cacophonous, factory-like back offices — flooded with daylight and high levels of ambient noise. The related noise and distractions have been a growing source of complaints from workers ever since.

We wrote about this on February 16 after spending a decade working on the problem with the U.S. General Services Administration and several large corporations. And now HBR keeps writing about noise and open plan offices. So is it possible we may soon see a trend towards office designs that accommodate worker comfort, safety and, even, employee productivity? We believe it may be.

If you are working in an open-space plan or are a senior level executive concerned with employee productivity, this ongoing HBR series could help YOU. This subject has also attracted mainstream media, so maybe the boss is already listening?

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

One reason we don’t hear about “open schools” anymore:

Photo credit: missbossy

They’re noisy! Steve Drummond, NPR, looks back at education policy in the 1960’s and 1970’s which gave birth to the “Open Education” model (among other things). Under this model there were “[n]o whole-class lessons, no standardized tests, and no detailed curriculum,” and often no walls. Wide open spaces prevailed.

Drummond visited one of the few remaining schools built with the open school concept in mind, Benjamin Orr Elementary School. The goal of the open school was to encourage collaboration (does that sound familiar?), but one glaring problem at open schools like Benjamin Orr is the noise. So the teachers there try to adapt by creating walls within the big open space. That’s not a surprise, because as Drummond tells us:

Historians say that’s pretty much why this open school design died out. Bottom line: Too loud. Too distracting. Teachers hated it.

Benjamin Orr Elementary School is going to be torn down and a new school built next door–a new school that will not be open (and will have better heating and cooling, too). But don’t despair.  Although the open school concept didn’t live up to its promise, one of the teachers Drummond interviews noted that “open education isn’t so much about the floor plan, but the way teachers work together and work with their students.”

 

Noise isn’t just a city problem

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.

 

Why do whales beach themselves?

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.”

Noise is not just a nuisance.

Link via Hyperacusis Research.

Sounding off on noise

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