Tag Archive: The Atlantic

“Health attacks” by inaudible sonic waves are real

Photo credit: Tess Watson licensed under CC BY 2.0

James Hamblin, The Atlantic, writes about the attacks on American and Canadian diplomats in Cuba in his article, “What Are Sound Weapons?” Hamblin starts his piece by describing the incidents which caused several Havana-based diplomats to suffer headaches, balance issues, and even severe hearing loss. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Hamblin notes, refered the to incidents as “health attacks.” And the AP reported that “U.S. officials concluded that the diplomats had been attacked with an advanced sonic weapon that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been deployed either inside or outside their residences.”

The weaponization of “energy waves with frequencies outside the range that the human ear can detect” is not new, writes Hamblin, and the health effects from exposure to inaudible sonic waves are real. Hamblin shares the story of residents of Kokomo, Indiana, who in 2001 experienced “annoyance, sleep disturbance, headaches, and nausea.” The U.S. National Institutes of Health investigated the matter but “couldn’t pin down the cause of the Indiana residents’ symptoms as infrasound.” The report, however, “did confirm that infrasound can cause fatigue, apathy, hearing loss, confusion, and disorientation.”

In the end, U.S. officials don’t know if Cuba is responsible or some third party, with the suggestion offered that the actor could have been “Russia, China, North Korea, Venezuela, or Iran.” But Hamblin adds that the attack is hardly sophisticated, as “[n]oise-induced hearing loss affects around one in four people,” although the source of noise is more mundane for most of us: loud concerts, shooting guns, and everyday failures to protect our hearing. Says Hamblin, “fascination with this sort of attack can be a reminder that it is worth arming ourselves in daily life against the more quotidian forms of sonic weaponry.”

Is man-made noise making desert insects disappear?

Photo credit: Ferran Pestaña licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Veronique Greenwood, The Atlantic, writes about the gas compressors in the San Juan Basin of New Mexico and the effect they are having on desert insects. The San Juan Basin is “the nation’s second-largest natural gas field, [where] for miles in every direction, gas compressors are running more or less constantly, filling the desert with their eerie, broadband roar.” When compressors are near people, Greenwood reports, efforts are made to dampen the sound, but not so when the only thing that can hear them are the creatures that live in the desert.

What do the compressors sound like? Greenwood says that they “create a curiously oppressive noise, with both high and low frequencies at very high volume, running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, nearly 52 weeks a year.” Sounds hellish. And apparently desert insects agree, as ecologists have discovered that many insect groups are disturbed by the compressors “and by high decibel levels of noise in general.” How disturbed? Although some insects groups showed no change, “[t]here were 24-percent fewer grasshoppers in compressor plots, 52-percent fewer froghoppers, and a whopping 95-percent fewer cave, camel, and spider crickets.”

The long-term effects aren’t exactly known–one researcher noted that the study was “is just the very tip of the iceberg”–but as insects avoid the sound of man-made noise, their altered behavior will likely affect the bats and birds that eat them.

Click the link above to read the entire piece.

 

 

The Best Music for Productivity?

Silence.  Olga Khazan, writing for The Atlantic, wonders whether wearing headphones and listening to music to avoid the noise in an open plan office is “just replacing one distracting noise with another.”  And her research, unsurprisingly, leads her to the inescapable conclusion that music interferes with concentration.  Khazan notes that the more engaging the music is, the worst it is for concentration, adding that “[m]usic with lyrics is dreadful for verbal tasks.”

So the next time your boss tells you to don a pair of headphones to drown out the noise of your fellow open plan toilers, send him or her the link to Ms. Khazan’s article along with a request for an office.

Thanks to @QuietEdinburgh for the link.

The scourge that is car alarms

In “The Alarming Truth,” Ilana E. Strauss, The Atlantic, looks at the confusing ubiquity of car alarms.  “Car alarms don’t deter criminals, and they’re a public nuisance,” she notes, so “[w]hy are they still so common?  Why indeed.

Car alarms “do very little of what they’re intended to do,” says Strauss, adding that ,”[i]f two analyses done in the 1990s still hold, 95 to 99 percent of all car-alarm triggerings are literally false alarms.”  And then there are the very real costs.  Strauss writes:

Worse, car alarms may be affecting the health of the people around them when they go off. A report from Transportation Alternatives, a bicycle-advocacy organization, estimated that New York’s car alarms lead to about $400 to $500 million per year in “public-health costs, lost productivity, decreased property value, and diminished quality of life.” An estimate from an organization whose stated goal is “to reclaim New York City’s streets from the automobile” should be taken with a grain of salt, but the point still stands that car-alarm sounds are stress-inducing and sleep-interrupting.

As anyone awoken at 4:00 a.m. by a yowling alarm that will not stop knows, once the alarm is finally stopped–usually after a minute that feels like much more–returning to sleep is near impossible.  And for what?  According the Strauss, the answer is “nothing.”  The good news? Very few news cars come with alarms, but some owners still buy them in the after market.  Click the link above to read the whole thing.

Thank to @jeaninebotta for the link.

An audiologist explains why noise is much more than a mere annoyance.

In “Why City Noise Is a Serious Health Hazard,” Eric Jaffe writes about noise in New York City.  His piece extensively quotes Craig Kasper, chief audiologist at New York Hearing Doctors, who notes how persistent noise complaints have been, citing a 1905 headline in the Times claiming New York to be “the noisiest city on earth.”  Kasper also discusses all of the ways in which noise adversely affects health and wellbeing (e.g., loss of sleep, anxiety, cardiovascular difficulties, etc.), adding that his patients “complain of loud restaurants the most.”  Oddly, this otherwise thoughtful piece concludes with Kasper stating that “noise adds to the charm of New York—and, really, any big city.”  It’s hard to accept that something as potentially damaging as noise can be described as charming.  Still, this short piece is worth a read.

Noise is more than a mere nuisance:

How Noise Pollution Hurts Kids.

Read this fascinating piece by Olga Khazan about researchers who found that children who lived on lower floors in a high-rise building near a highway in Manhattan had a harder time distinguishing words than kids living on higher floors and they were worse at reading.  Frighteningly, “[t]he relationship between the kids’ scores and floor level was strongest for the kids who had lived in the building the longest.”

Noise is more than an annoyance when it can interfere with learning.

 

How a professional cellist learned to live with a career-ending ear injury:

The Atlantic has posted a fascinating aritcle by Janet Horvath, the former principal cello for the Minneapolis Orchestra who suffered an acoustic-shock injury to her left ear during a concert that led to a severe case of hyperacusis.  In “A musician afraid of sound,” Horvath writes that the placement of a speaker two feet from her ear left her unable to tolerate noise, including music.  The article allows those unfamiliar with hyperacusis to understand the devastation it can cause, particularly when the injury happens to someone for whom music was both a career and passion.  Fortunately, after being fitted “with modified hearing aids that…lower[ed] the volume of sound without altering its clarity,” followed by months of desensitization therapy, Horvath was to pick up her cello two years after her injury and play, but in the end she accepts that she would never be an orchestral musician again.

It’s gratifying to see a piece about hyperacusis in a mainstream publication, particularly since so few people are aware that it exists.  One hopes that pieces like this one, coupled with recent newpaper articles addressing restaurant noise, help to raise awareness about the noise pollution’s impact on health.

Thanks to Bryan Pollard for the link.  Bryan is the founder and president of Hyperacusis Research Limited, a non-profit charity dedicated to funding research on what causes hyperacusis with the the goal of developing effective treatments.