Tag Archive: public health hazard

Will electric vehicles reduce city traffic noise?

Photo credit: G.M. Briggs

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Some people put great hope in technology to solve problems of modern living. So it is with those who think that electric vehicles, whether trucks or other vehicles, will do the trick. I’m in favor of electric and hybrid vehicles for their beneficial effects in reducing the use of petroleum products and reducing gaseous and particulate emissions. Anything reducing diesel use will have a dramatic benefit in reducing particulate matter. So news that Ryder, “one of the nation’s largest medium-duty truck fleet management companies, will buy trucks from Chanje [an electric truck manufacturer], then lease and service them through its extensive network,” is welcome. But will electric vehicles reduce city traffic noise? I think not.

First, it will take years if not decades for electric vehicles to become more common. Second, and perhaps more importantly, power train noise is a small component of road traffic noise in most situations. I suppose a diesel hybrid vehicle idling on electric will be quieter than the same vehicle powered solely by a diesel engine, but adequate insulation of the engine compartment and an effective muffler system would do the trick just as well.

And of course, electric vehicles won’t do anything about horns, horn-based alerts, or sirens.

The technologies to reduce or control noise have been known for decades. Acoustics pioneer Leo Beranek published his landmark book, “Noise Reduction,” in 1960 and the successor, “Noise and Vibration Control,” in 1971. As noise pioneer Arline Bronzaft, PhD, has written, what is lacking is not the way but the political will.

Road traffic noise is a health and public health hazard, causing non-auditory health impacts like hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and death. The European literature makes this very clear. There is no reason to think that Americans, largely of European descent and those from elsewhere, have different physiological responses to noise exposure.

If enough people loudly demand that their elected officials pass and enforce laws to make vehicles and streets quieter, our cities and their streets will become quieter. Electric vehicles may or may not play a small role in this, but they are largely irrelevant.

Dr. Daniel 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 is 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.

Noise exposure directly damages rat brains. What does it do to humans?

Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The evidence keeps mounting, almost on a daily basis, that noise is a health and public health hazard. Just last month, an article by researchers in Italy found that noise exposure directly damaged rat brains, producing changes in DNA, neurotransmitters, and even morphological changes. (For those who might be skeptical of this report, there is an existing body of research on the effects of noise on the brain. I don’t understand the details of the newer scientific studies, and I’m always cautious because studies have shown that positive results get reported more frequently than negative results, but taken together with the new report, there is a large amount of research pointing to a direct effect of noise on the brain.)

The Italian study exposed rates to noise of 100 decibels for 12 hours. That level exceeds exposure levels for most humans–certainly for a half-day period–but probably not cumulatively for many who attend clubs, rock concerts, or have noisy hobbies such as woodworking or motorcycle riding.

Humans and rats are genetically very similar–experts argue about whether the rat and human genomes are 97% or 99% similar, and about how to measure this similarity–but regardless of the exact percentage, we’re not talking about applying data from a roundworm to humans. The basic similarities are there in organ and cellular biochemistry, structure, and function. So it’s very likely that noise is also a direct toxin to the human brain, with similar genetic, neurotransmitter, and morphological changes, and most likely at lower noise exposure levels, too.

So what can we do? The solution is simple: avoid loud noise exposure, and wear hearing protection if you can’t.

And one last thing–encourage legislators, regulators, and public health authorities to do more to protect us from exposure to unnecessary noise.

Dr. Daniel 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 is 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.

Another Silent Spring

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

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.

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

Do We Hear too Much Noise Every Day?

Dr. Daniel Fink believes the answer is yes. Noted noise activist, Daniel Fink, MD, Founding Chair of The Quiet Coalition, writes about his thesis that the general public is exposed to entirely too much damaging noise every day. He notes that noise is a public health hazard, yet the federal government, which adopts standards to protect the public for food, water, and motor vehicles and makes recommendations or guidelines for dietary intakes of vitamins, salt, and sugar, has issued no federal standard regulating noise exposure or recommending noise limitations for the public.  In his piece, Dr. Fink describes his quest to find the noise level that will protect hearing, and he reveals how a recent important but ignored study has confirmed his suspicions that hearing damage can occur at lower decibel levels than previously suspected.

Click the link above to read more about Dr. Fink’s mission to warn medical professionals, the government, and the public about the dangers of noise and how we can protect our hearing.