Tag Archive: Quiet Communities

Massachusetts Medical Society: No to noisy leaf blowers

Photo credit: Hector Alejandro licensed under CC by 2.0

By Jamie L. Banks, PhD, MSc, Program Director, The Quiet Coalition

Are health concerns about gas-powered leaf blowers (GLBs) gaining momentum? On April 29th, the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) became the second in the nation to approve a resolution against GLBs, following the lead of the Medical Society of the State of New York (MSSNY). Other physician groups, such as Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment and Fresno Madera Medical Society, have also issued warnings on the use of GLBs and other fuel-powered lawn and garden equipment. The resolution brought by the society’s Committee on Environmental and Occupational Health and its chair Heather Alker, MD, MPH, recommends that the MMS:

  • Recognize noise pollution as a public health hazard, with respect to hearing loss;
  • Support initiatives to increase awareness of the health risks of loud noise exposure;
  • Urge the maximum feasible reduction of all forms of air pollution, including particulates, gases, toxicants, irritants, smog formers, and other biologically and chemically active pollutants; and
  • Acknowledge the increased risk of adverse health consequences to workers and general public from gas-powered leaf blowers including hearing loss and cardiopulmonary disease.

The growing concern on the part of the medical community over leaf blower noise is welcome news. Commercial GLBs can produce noise of 95 decibels and higher at the ear of the operator. This noise level exceeds safe occupational levels by an order of magnitude. The close proximity use of these powerful engines exposes both workers and others in the area to prolonged periods of excessive noise, not to mention toxic air pollutants. The presence of a low frequency component in the leaf blower’s frequency band distribution (i.e., the device’s sound signature) enables it to travel over long distances and through walls and windows.

The MMS resolution notes the harms to hearing and health from excessive noise produced by GLBs. Loud noise is known to cause hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis, as well as other health problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease. In addition, loud noise has negative effects on quality of life, communication and social interaction, work productivity, and psychological well-being.

The burgeoning use of GLBs and other fossil fuel powered equipment around our homes, schools, and other public spaces is a public health hazard, and a growing number of physicians and other health professionals are becoming concerned. The moves made by MMS and MSSNY are to be lauded, and other state societies and medical groups, including the American Lung Association and American Heart Association, need to prioritize this issue.  With the body of scientific evidence on the harms associated with noise and pollution, other state and national medical societies have a critical role to play in educating government officials and the public about the connections between environmental hazards and disease and the actions we can take to reduce risks in our communities.

Jamie L. Banks, PhD, MSc, is the Executive Director of Quiet Communities, Inc. and the Program Director of The Quiet Coalition. She is an environmentalist and health care scientist dedicated to promoting clean, healthy, quiet, and sustainable landscape maintenance, construction, and agricultural practices. Dr. Banks has an extensive background in health outcomes and economics, environmental behavior, and policy.

Source: Quiet Communities

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

Declining prevalence of hearing loss in U.S.? What do the data really show?

by Daniel Fink, MD

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.

New Umbrella Organization Takes Aim at Noise

On October 1, 2016, members of nine scientific, medical, and legal organizations launched a national umbrella anti-noise group, The Quiet Coalition (TQC), hosted by the nonprofit organization Quiet Communities, to advocate for a quieter world. TQC brings together a diverse group of organizations and individuals, each with a unique focus or interest, in the fight against noise. It brings medical, scientific, legal, and other specialized knowledge to the public policy process to advocate for all Americans to make our world quieter, more sustainable, and livable. On December 7th, TQC’s website went live.

TQC recognizes that noise is like secondhand smoke, in that it is both a nuisance and a health hazard. Both environmental noise and secondhand smoke involuntarily expose large segments of the public to harmful conditions, increasing their risk of disease.  And decades of research show conclusively that excessive environmental noise adversely affects health, learning, productivity, and the environment.

Why have decision makers been so slow to regulate noise? According to a newly published editorial in the American Journal of Public Health by Daniel Fink, MD, Founding Chair of the TQC, the answer lies in public policy.  “Although noise was known to be a health hazard, it was treated as an environmental pollutant…with federal noise control activities assigned to the EPA.” These noise control activities were never adequately funded or supported, and federal and local health agencies were left with no meaningful responsibility. As a result, the issue has remained under the radar. TQC intends to change this now.

“The scientific evidence is incontrovertible: noise causes hearing loss and other health problems. We have a responsibility to speak up just as experts did when the dangers of smoking became known,” says Fink. Fink adds that “through recent discoveries, the mechanisms by which noise damages auditory cells, the nervous system, and the cardiovascular system are becoming clear.”  TQC Program Director Jamie Banks, PhD, notes that “[p]ublic health policy to protect the nation’s health from environmental noise is long overdue,” and declares that, “[TQC] will provide decision makers with the scientific evidence needed to make informed policy decisions.”

To learn more about TQC and it’s mission to protect the public from noise, visit the TQC website.

 

The war against leaf blowers inches forward:

As another California city mulls ban on blowers of all types.  No doubt some people may wonder why others dedicate time and energy fighting something that seems fairly innocuous, at best, and merely annoying, at worst.  But leaf blowers are not just an annoyance.  Quiet Communities, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting our health, environment, and quality of life from the excessive use of industrial outdoor maintenance equipment, has documented the substantial health hazard leaf blowers pose to the health of the operator, those in the vicinity of the activity, and even our pets, too.

So hearing that Ojai, California is considering banning all blowers, both gas-powered and battery-powered, is encouraging.  And yes, there will be push back, but in the end the only reason not to ban leaf blowers is that the alternatives are more expensive.  A fact that is only true if you only consider the additional labor cost and ignore the savings to health and wellbeing.

A fascinating read about the weaponization of sound:

When Music Is Violence.  Alex Ross, writing for The New Yorker, reports on the use of extremely loud noise in psychological-operations and warfare.  The American public was introduced to this tactic in December, 1989, when the military employed it in Panama, blasting “non-stop music [to] aggravate [Manuel] Noriega into surrendering” after he was expelled from power and took refuge in the Papal Nunciatura in Panama City.  Although the “media delighted in the spectacle”, both “President George H. W. Bush and General Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took a dim view of it.”  Despite a lack of enthusiasm for weaponized noise at the top of command, the use of loud music as a weapon has increased. “[D]uring the occupation of Iraq the C.I.A. added music to the torture regime known as “enhanced interrogation,” and the tactic has also been used in Guantánamo.

Ross looks at the intersection of music and violence, noting that when “music is applied to warlike ends, we tend to believe that it has been turned against its innocent nature.”  He states, “[s]ound is all the more potent because it is inescapable,” and notes how technological development has led to long-range acoustic devices that “send out shrill, pulsating tones of up to a hundred and forty-nine decibels—enough to cause permanent hearing damage.”  The discussion turns darker as Ross examines the “music sadism” pioneered by the Nazis, and draws the thread to Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Mosul, and Guantánamo, where “the loud-music tactic displays a chilling degree of casual sadism: the choice of songs seems designed to amuse the captors as much as to nauseate the captives.”  And there is more.

Do click the link above.  The article is thought provoking, disturbing, and absolutely worth reading.

Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D. for the link.  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 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.

South Pasadena Becomes Nation’s First AGZA Green Zone® City

South Pasedena’s parks and lands are now free of deafening noise and toxic pollution from gas-powered landscape maintenance equipment.

Quiet Communities has announced that South Pasadena has taken the first brave step forward and switched the maintenance of “all 41 acres (!) of municipal lands to advanced electric landscape maintenance equipment and manual tools.”

By transitioning to electric and manual tools, reports Quiet Communities, the city is:

[E]liminating toxic and carcinogenic emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, and hazardous waste associated with the use of gas-powered engines including hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides (ground level ozone precursors) fine particulate matter, carbon monoxide (CO), and carbon dioxide.  All are known to contribute to serious health problems and environmental degradation.  Schools, businesses, and parks can be enjoyed as peaceful public spaces.  The new equipment will improve working conditions for grounds crews who will no longer have to expose themselves to deafening noise, harmful emissions, or equipment vibrations.  Residents will enjoy a cleaner, healthier environment and improved quality of life.

Quiet Communities is bringing AGZA Green Zones to the East Coast.  To learn more about creating an AGZA Green Zone, click the link above or contact Quiet Communities at: info@quietcommunities.org.

A common lament:

Dyckman’s deafening daily drumbeat: A local resident is sick of the noise.

Ann Votaw writes about New Yorker’s number one complaint: noise.   Trying to understand out how to stop the noise in her neighborhood, she contacted Arline Bronzaft, a leading environmental psychologist who advised five mayors on the consequences of noise pollution, who stated that “[n]o other city in the United States is more aware of intrusive sound than New York.”  Ms. Bronzaft lauded the city’s 311 system, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the police department “for their dedication to the New York City Noise Code,” she acknowledged that 311 was effective at collecting metrics but was unsure of “how the system executes solutions leading to relief.”

New York City’s Noise Code and 311 system are good steps in combating noise pollution, but the focus must shift to enforcing the code and punishing offenders.  Until noise polluters understand that there are consequences for their actions, they will continue to make life hellish for those around them.

Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the link.  Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association and is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council.

Quiet fireworks? Must be an oxymoron, no? No:

Oh, Say, Can You See (but Not Hear) Those Fireworks?

Why would someone want quiet fireworks, you may ask?  Pet owners know that cats and particularly dogs can be adversely affected by fireworks, but humans are at risk as well:

For people, loud fireworks can lead to hearing loss. The World Health Organization lists 120 decibels as the pain threshold for sound, including sharp sounds such as thunderclaps. Fireworks are louder than that.

“They’re typically above 150 decibels, and can even reach up to 170 decibels or more,” said Nathan Williams, an audiologist at Boys Town National Research Hospital in Nebraska.

Dr. Williams also sees higher traffic to his clinic after Independence Day. “We usually see a handful of people every year,” he said. “In these cases, hearing loss is more likely to be permanent.”

And Dr. Williams added that children are more vulnerable to hearing loss from fireworks because they have more sensitive hearing.  So if you are going to a fireworks display this weekend, enjoy it safely and bring ear plugs for the whole family.

Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the link.  Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association and the Health Advisory Council of Quiet Communities.

Safe noise exposure for the general public

Daniel Fink, M.D., Interim Chair of the Quiet Communities Health Advisory Council, has written a post for the Quiet Communities’s blog that tackles a question which is rarely addressed: What noise level IS safe for preventing hearing loss?

In his post, Dr. Fink discusses the seeming contradiction between a 1974 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determination that “a 24-hour average noise exposure level of 70 decibels (dB) or less prevent[s] measurable hearing loss over a lifetime” with statements from various governmental and nonprofit organizations that suggested that “a much louder noise level − anything up to 85 dB − was safe for our ears.”  In the course of researching the issue, he received a communication from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) that explained where the 85 dB figure came from; the information in that communication formed the basis of a post on NIOSH’s Science Blog in February 2016 (which is discussed here).

Long and short, the NIOSH communication explained that the 85 dB was an occupational noise exposure standard developed to protect workers over a lifetime of work, whereas the EPA determination of 70 dB averaged noise exposure over 24 hours was believed to protect the general public from hearing loss over a lifetime.  As Dr. Fink notes that the clarification of the difference in noise exposure limits is important in setting public policy and protecting public health, and he concludes that, based on his research, “[t]he much lower 70 dB average noise exposure level is the only published safe noise level to protect the public’s hearing.”