News about noise pollution seems to be trending in a big way, as growing awareness of the health risks of noise makes more and more Americans less willing to put up with it. Recent articles and news coverage about unbearably loud environments in New York, Virginia, New Orleans and Los Angeles to name just a few raise a good question: Does noise pollution have to go hand-in-hand with urban living, or are city dwellers within their rights to demand change in the form of lowered decibels?
Recent articles in the New York Times, L.A. Times, and Wall Street Journal have blown the lid off of the life-threatening nuisance that is noise pollution. Several articles hit the media in early summer pinpointing roadway traffic noise as a proven contributor to heart attacks among people exposed. Long Island and Hamptons residents are close to anarchy over the uber-rich one-percenters flying back and forth in private helicopters daily between their Hamptons vacation homes to their Manhattan offices, with no regulation in place regarding flight paths or flight times. The helicopter noise, which residents claim shakes their homes and wakes them from their sleep, is being interpreted by the unhappy neighbors of these wealthy heli-commuters as intentionally inflicted harassment .
Yet the helicopter offenders don’t seem to care that they’re making their neighbors miserable and probably even affecting their health. Or if they do care, it’s not enough to give up their airborne transportation and return to fighting Manhattan-to-Hamptons roadway traffic every day.
But the escalating attention given to the hazards of noise pollution on everyday working Americans hit home hardest a few weeks ago when the New York Times published reporter Cara Buckley’s jaw-dropping account of noise levels measured in 37 Manhattan businesses - bars, restaurants, gyms and shops. Noise levels in one of every three business visited was 10-20 decibels or more above those levels deemed safe by OSHA and the World Health Organization.
City noise is no longer something Americans are taking in stride and chalking off as the price we pay to live in the city. Shortly after Ms. Buckley’s expose ran, New York Tines architectural critic Michael Kimmelman, tweeted about Manhattan noise.
"Not a sign of big city grit, but an urban blight." he tweeted. In a follow-up tweet, Mr. Kimmelman called noise pollution “the next ecological challenge for the city."
Could it be that people are becoming proactive about noise pollution? Maybe. Architects and builders in recent years have discovered the importance of including noise abatement materials in new home and renovation designs, as noise pollution creeps further and further into every cranny of our existence, with disastrous consequences to health and hearing. Soundproofing increases the value of real estate, as buyers find real appeal in the idea of home being a true haven, particularly when home is in the heart of any major urban area.
And, new and improved noise barrier and noise deadening materials are available today for use in residential, commercial, and industrial structures. As it stands, the U.S. is significantly less stringent on acceptable decibel levels in the workplace than almost every other country on earth! The economic impact of enforcing noise abatement in public places vs. the health risks of noise pollution has so far been siding with economics. For instance, noisy sightseeing planes in the Grand Canyon have been proven to damage wildlife habitats, and impose unhealthy noise levels on tourists, park rangers, and park employees alike; but a recent bill to regulate low flying aircraft noise over the Grand Canyon was rejected by Congress during passage of a federal transportation funding bill in early July that opponents claim was unexpected and unannounced.
Ironically, this happened just before the National Park Service was about to present its final recommendations on reducing aircraft noise over the Grand Canyon – a recommendation that was formulated after years of noise studies, at a cost of $6 million, plus the collection of nearly 30,000 public comments researchers had gathered. Arizona Senator John McCain spearheaded the effort to quash aircraft noise regulation in the national park, stating that the regulations would cause serious economic hardship to small plane and helicopter tour operators at the Grand Canyon.
It’s hard to say how much longer noise pollution in the U.S. will be relatively free of limitations. At lease noise deadening materials keep improving, so that if you choose to live in the city, you can install a noise abatement solution that can give you some peace and quiet.
QUIET, PLEASE A lighted device monitors noise at a New York hospital.
Sleep plays a critical role in maintaining health and well-being; however, hospital patients are often immersed in noise that can interfere with sleep. Efforts to quiet hospital noise have been slow to take hold, but that may be changing as new studies surface on the relationship between sleep and healing.
Noise has been a growing concern for patients in hospitals across the U.S. for years. In fact, hospitals have begun documenting the overwhelming number of patients who stall or avoid going to the hospital despite serious medical symptoms because the environment there is just too stressful!
Patients have become hypercritical of hospital care, and many of their complaints boil down to noise – incessant beeping, blaring, rattling, crashing noise that prevents them from sleeping or even getting adequate rest to heal. Patient complaints about noise have been ignored for years because hospital administrators, physicians, nurses and staff have all been operating under the belief that information delivered by the multitude of alarms, buzzers, beepers, and other noise-making devices is more important than quiet surroundings.
Thankfully, old attitudes toward noise are changing, albeit at a snail's pace, as noise pollution studies in recent years have proven the damaging effects of noise on human health, and as focus in hospitals is turning toward patient satisfaction. New policies linking hospital reimbursement to patient satisfaction are central to changes being made to lower the volume in hospitals so that patients can get better.
Some hospitals have launched noise abatement campaigns, with names like “Hush” (Help Us Support Healing), “Shhh” (Silent Hospitals Help Healing), “Too Loud,” - three of a handful of noise reduction programs at hospitals nationwide. These programs and others like them institute mandatory noise reduction measures to quiet hospital environments.
For decades, patients have endured noise levels that far exceed World Health Organization (WHO) limits for hospitals, and studies are proving that the high noise levels in medical facilities are causing patients to suffer. A recent study from the University of Chicago discovered that the average noise levels in hospital rooms often exceed the 30 decibel limit established by the WHO. Thirty decibels is slightly louder than a whisper; the University of Chicago study found decibel levels in patient rooms measuring 100 – 110 decibels -- the equivalent of a chainsaw!
Many patients in hospitals are suffering from severe noise-induced sleep deprivation, studies show, and for every hour of sleep they did not get, their blood pressure measured increases of six points or more.
“There is a threat perceived in the noises they are exposed to,” says Orfeu M. Buxton, lead author of “Sleep Disruption Due to Hospital Noises: A Prospective Evaluation,” published in June 2012 in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Buxton, assistant professor in the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, says that hospitalized patients are probably in a high state of ‘threat vigilance’ already, and unnecessary noise seems to exacerbate their sleep difficulties.
Buxton's study concludes that "sounds during sleep influence both cortical brain activity and cardiovascular function, confirming the disruptive capacity of a range of hospital sounds on sleep and providing evidence that is essential to improving the acoustic environments of new and existing health care facilities to enable the highest quality of care."
New initiatives to add soundproofing materials and install noise abatement practices within hospitals are still slow going. And, while the jury remains out on whether any of these initiatives will take permanent hold, one thing is clear: patient complaints about hospital noise and their inability to sleep because of it has come to be recognized as a direct reflection on a hospital’s quality of care.
Have you ever been a patient in a hospital, or visited a patient in a hospital in which noise was prevalent and problematic? If so, tell us your story.
Hoping to find a more targeted approach to helping people who suffer from sleep deprivation, researchers have been studying the brains of people who are able to sleep through the night even when subjected to noise levels that prevent others from sleeping well.
Are some folks just better wired to block out noise? If so, can the gift nature bestowed on them be used to help others who are struggling with noise-related sleep impairment? As most of us already know, environmental noise can wreak havoc on sleep quality, which can eventually impact our health. In fact, studies showing the heightened incidents of heart attacks in people exposed to noise pollution from excessive road traffic noise note sleep disturbances among those issues that are common to most (if not all) study participants.
According to a 2009 CDC survey, approximately one in 10 Americans report difficulty sleeping. More than 50 million Americans are plagued with chronic sleep disorders that can potentially lead to serious health problems.
Electroencephalography (EEG) testing on 12 healthy people, performed by researchers from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, was used in the study to establish sleep quality. By capturing brain wave rhythms through the EEG scans, researchers could identify movements made as each test subject passed from one stage of sleep to the next.
The researchers subjected people to sensory information, including sound, which passes through the thalamus – a structure in the brain that relays sensory and motor signals to the cerebral cortex, and also regulates consciousness, sleep, and alertness. The sound passes through the thalamus before it reaches the brain’s cortex, where communication signals are processed, even during sleep.
Here’s why this is important, if somewhat confusing to non-scientists. In the second and third stages of sleep, brain wave patterns actually slow down but then are scattered with short, quick pulses called spindles. Spindles only occur during sleep, and researchers think that spindles might help block sensory information like noise from reaching the thalamus to begin with. So, maybe some extra spindle activity could be the answer to sleeping through noise?
What these researchers did to test this theory was to alter the noise levels delivered to the sleeping subjects over a three-day period. The first night they kept things quiet, but the second and third nights the subjects were exposed to noise beginning with 40 decibels for 10 second intervals. By measuring the brain activity each night and then comparing the differeces, researchers concluded that those test subjects who could sleep through noise levels equivalent to a telephone ringing or highway traffic were determined to have higher spindle rates on their EEGs.
The effects were so pronounced, according to one researcher, that they could be measured after just one noise-filled night. The next step is to figure out if behavioral techniques, new drugs, or external devices might offer an added boost to spindle activity, which will allow people who are noise sensitive to maintain a healthy, natural state of sleep when confronted with noise.
So far, the best we can do is provide a sleep environment in the home that is as quiet and possible. Installing noise blocking and noise absorbing materials into one or more rooms can have a dramatic effect on sleep quality, and the quality of our sleep plays a huge role in the quality of our lives.
It’s great that researchers are seeking answers to help people sleep in noisy environments, but before we turn to methods to interfere with noise transmission to the brain, shouldn’t we be looking at ways to reduce noise pollution from our environment first?
Noise abatement materials improve all the time, and in many new home building projects architects and contractors are writing the soundproofing material right into the design, so that installation happens before drywall goes up and there’s no worries about retrofitting later. Other options for blocking environmental noise pollution from residences and outdoor spaces are available, effective, and drug-free.