FBI Terrorist Screening Center, Vienna, Virginia
In an otherwise quaint community just outside of Washington D.C., noise emanating from an unmarked three-story office building is driving the residents of Vienna, Virginia to distraction. For almost two years the building has been subjecting the Vienna community to a loud, high-pitched noise caused by 23 industrial rooftop air-conditioning units, which residents compare to the sound of a helicopter hovering a block away, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
It just doesn’t stop.
The building’s only tenant is the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center. Here agents gather sensitive national security data like no-fly lists. The building houses tons of high tech computing instruments, and to protect the equipment it needs to be kept cool, 24/7.
The noise is coming from 23 “dry cooler” air-conditioning units that run non-stop on the building’s roof. Each unit has 10 high velocity fans – that means 230 high-velocity fans are filling the community with their high velocity fan noise morning, noon and night. The noise is not so loud that it interferes with conversation, but it is loud enough and annoying enough to have locals at their wits’ end. After two years, promises to fix the noise problem have gone unfulfilled, meaning residents’ vulnerability to noise-related health problems has gone unresolved.
One neighbor, Jeff Lewis, told a Washington Post reporter that the “hellish unending noise” is a constant outside his home’s windows. Another neighbor, Ken Foley, says the noise penetrates his home’s double pane windows. Even his air conditioning unit turned up full blast doesn’t drown out the sound. Foley has been asking for help with the noise problem since August, 2010.
Before the FBI moved in, the building on Follin Lane was occupied by the CIA. They were quiet, according to the neighbors. The CIA moved out of the 200,000 square foot building years ago and the building was bought by a Bethseda-based company called Goldstar Group and Chicago-based Transwestern Commercial Services $25 million in 2005. When Goldstar took possession of the building and its 18-acre adjacent property, it told Vienna it would be a good neighbor.
Vienna says they have been anything but a good neighbor.
Although the noise problem didn’t start until 2010, it was in 2007 that the FBI decided to move its Terrorist Screening Center to the property and call it Liberty Park. And here is where it gets really crazy.
The building was gutted and rebuilt prior to the FBI taking occupancy in the fall of 2010. In August of 2010, those 23 air conditioning units were installed on the roof and the noise was immediate and alarming when they were first fired up. Local residents immediately began complaining to town officials, and the Vienna planning and zoning director issued a “modified stop work order” on the building – they were ordered to stop working between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. Nights when the noise continued after 8 p.m., police would be called to the site, and only then would the air conditioning units be shut down for the night.
At first Vienna officials denied the FBI an occupancy permit because of the air conditioners’ noise, but Goldstar, the FBI and the General Services Administration (GSA) - the federal agency that helps manage and support the basic functioning of federal agencies - promised the town that if the FBI could have the occupancy permit and move in, these three offices would work diligently to correct the noise problem. Town leaders believed what they were told – I mean, it is the FBI we’re talking about here, what could go wrong? So, the occupancy permit was issued in November 2010.
Since air conditioning isn’t a necessity in the D.C. come November, the noise had thinned. But by spring 2011 those 23 air conditioning units were fired up again and the noise pervaded the community night and day. Adding insult to injury, once Goldstar had their occupancy license in hand, the 8 p.m. – 7 a.m. stop work order was nothing but a distant memory. Pleas to Goldstar, the GSA and the FBI to make it stop did not make it stop. It still hasn’t stopped.
In November 2011, Goldstar promised Vienna that a noise absorbing solution would be installed around the roof units. Of course, by then another winter was rolling in and the units were shut down. Spring 2012 turned into a repeat of spring 2011, with more stalling from the building’s owner, more decibel testing by Vienna officials, and more outrage pouring from Vienna’s beleaguered citizens.
One thing that should be addressed in all of this is the long-term health effects this non-stop noise could be having on area residents. Studies prove that exposure to noise above 65 decibels for more than eight hours daily increase the risk of permanent hearing loss, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes. But scientists are quick to point out that the decibel levels can be significantly lower than 65 and still have a harmful effect when people are exposed day in and day out with no relief. Many of Vienna’s residents are also suffering from noise-induced sleep deprivation as a result of the building’s din, which exacerbates existing health problems and creates new ones.
Children exposed to noise pollution have trouble concentrating and their school performance suffers. Children, the elderly, and people battling illness are the most vulnerable to noise-related health problems, but no one is immune. One resident says that the noise resembled a propeller plane taking off in his direction. After two years of that imagery, the psychological impact, combined with the fact that it’s loud enough to keep everyone’s stress level high (the fight-or-flight reflex is not meant to be turned on all the time) has the community in an uproar.
Goldstar, at this point, is shuffling papers and issuing statements that basically claim that the building’s operations do not violate any ordinances of the Town of Vienna. However, Goldstar claims that, in collaboration with GSA, it wants to address the noise concerns and “be a good neighbor.’”
Needless to say, after giving the community its word two years ago in exchange for an occupancy permit and then never making good on its word, Goldstar should have no reason to expect the Vienna community to believe, well, one word its company officials say.
Plus, Goldstar is committing only to reducing the noise to “legal levels” – which in Vienna were defined back in 1950, using outdated decibel and frequency measurement criteria.
Air conditioning units like these didn’t even exist when Vienna’s noise ordinance was written, and the effects of noise pollution on human health were not known back then either.
As town officials and residents mull over their next course of action, it’s a tough road any way you look at it. The town absolutely can’t face another summer of noise, and all options are on the table at this point – including a legal injunction.
So despite all the broken promises and the growing resentment of the community, what has kept Vienna residents from taking drastic action even after two years have passed and they still have received no relief from the noise?
Vienna residents are proud to have the Terrorist Screening Center in their community. After all, who wants to sue the Terrorist Screening Center?
New studies in hearing loss are increasing steadily, and the scientific world in scrambling to understand, and hopefully come up with some answers to the effects of man made noise on human hearing.
One researcher - Manfred Auer of Berkeley Lab’s Life Sciences Division - caught my eye with this succinct comment: "Finding a way to regenerate hair cells is the Holy Grail of research; We're born with just 16,000 hair cells in the cochlea, and every passing subway train kills a few of them."
Finding a way to regenerate the delicate inner ear hair cells is work Auer and other researchers are dedicating large chunks of time and resources to, as the industrialed world suffers greater degrees of hearing loss each year.
IIOne out of a thousand children in the United States is born IIdeaf; ten percent of all people living in industrialized nations IIsuffer from severe hearing loss — 30 million in the U.S. alone. IIThese are pressing clinical reasons to learn just how hearing IIworks and why it fails.
II"Hearing in humans is a remarkable faculty," says Auer "It works IIover six orders of magnitude, from a whisper to the roar of a IIjjet engine. If it were just a little more sensitive, we'd be able IIto hear the atoms colliding with our eardrums — in other IIwords, our hearing is about as sensitive as we can stand IIwithout going crazy."
IIHearing is also remarkable for its ability to adapt to constant IIloud noise yet still manage to pick out barely distinguishable sounds, "like being able to follow a single conversation across the room at a cocktail party, or hearing someone shout at you over the noise of a rock band," says Auer.
And humans can pinpoint the source of a sound to within less than a degree: one ear hears the sound slightly before the other, and the brain calculates the direction from the offset. But the difference in arrival times is less than a millionth of a second, a thousand times faster than most biochemical processes; thus hearing must depend on direct mechanical detection of sounds instantly translated into nerve signals.
The inner ear's hair cells are the key. They convert mechanical responses into electrical signals that trigger adjacent neurons in the brain — a prime example of a phenomenon, fundamental in tissue and cell biology, known as mechanosensation. Hair cells are embedded in the epithelial lining of the cochlea, where they respond mechanically to sound vibrations; others in the nearby vestibular labyrinth move in response to radial and linear acceleration and are the source of the sense of balance.
Thus beyond practical concerns lie basic scientific questions about the exact molecular composition and three-dimensional architecture of hair cells and related entities. A uniquely powerful tool for exploring biological structures at this subcellular but supramolecular level is electron microscope tomography — electron tomography for short.
A Hairdo for Hearing
The part of the hair cell that mechanically responds to vibration (or acceleration) is a bundle of fibers called stereocilia, sticking out of the top of the cell like a radical hairdo. In zebrafish the stereocilia are arranged in stair-step fashion. The tallest shaft, made of bundles of cylindrical microtubules, acts like a tent pole to support the development of all the others, which are made of bundles of the protein actin. Each actin-based fiber is shorter than the one next to it, and the tip of each lower fiber is attached diagonally to the side of the adjacent taller fiber by a fine filament called a tip link.
When vibration pushes against the bundle of stereocilia the fibers lean over, stretching the tip-link filaments. This pulls open nearby channels in the fibers (one or two per fiber), allowing potassium ions to flow into the fiber and down to the body of the cell. The electrical balance between calcium and potassium ions in the cell is instantly changed, triggering a signal to adjacent neurons.
If the hair bundle remains bent by persistent noise, a higher level of calcium in the cell signals the structural protein myosin, also present in the stereocilia, to slide down along the actin fibers. By resetting the tension on the tip-link springs in this way, hair cells can adapt to sustained noise levels.
"There are two ways hearing can be damaged by loud noises," Auer says. "Noise can stress the stereocilia bundle so much that the tip links break. However they usually grow back in 24 hours — this is the rock-concert effect, where hearing loss is temporary. But loud noises can also shear off whole bundles of stereocilia. In mammals these can't regenerate, and the loss is permanent."
Finding a way to regenerate hair cells, says Auer, "is the Holy Grail of research. We're born with just 16,000 hair cells in the cochlea, and every passing subway train kills a few of them."
Taken individually, the images of stereocilia from which Auer and his colleagues construct electron tomographs don't look much different from the many other microscopic studies of these structures — including blobs near the tips of the fibers that researchers customarily dismissed as "dirt." But, says Auer, "We think there is no such thing as dirt."
Because electron tomography allows "dissection in silico" Auer's group has been able to analyze these mysterious artifacts, giving rise to provocative hints of unsuspected tip-link structures — including whether there may be more than a single tip link between fibers, how tip links are structured, and what protein or proteins constitute the tip links.
"Until lately, the only protein firmly associated with stereocilia tip structures besides actin was myosin. Now we have 50 candidates — all because we could look at that 'dirt' in 3-D." Auer and his collaborators have developed good evidence for just which proteins are involved in tip-links and in other links among stereocilia. They plan to publish their findings soon.
And That's Just the Beginning
"For years, because they have understandably concentrated on disease organisms, microbiologists ignored the most basic condition of bacterial life, which is that bacteria live in communities," Auer says. Already electron tomography studies have revealed fascinating and unsuspected features of the bacterial communities known as biofilms. Contrary to what most biologists have thought, some biofilms — supposedly made up of independent bacterial cells — have many of the hallmarks of organized tissues.
Indeed, Auer says, "a biofilm is a prokaryotic version of a tissue," and he plans to publish research results soon, demonstrating these similarities in startling detail.
Because electron tomography can bridge the gap between ultrahigh-resolution protein structures and the large-scale organization of cells and tissues available to the light microscope, Auer says, "I would contend that electron tomography will play a major role in investigating all aspects of biology — in structural biology, cell biology, proteomics, biochemistry, physiology, pathology, evolution, everything. Once you have this new toy, you can apply it to all these questions."
For NASCAR drivers, crew members, staff and fans, the noise and reverberation that are Nascar's trademark may also be contributing to the most serious health issues fed by extended exposure to the painfully loud roar of four dozen revving engines, blasting around the half-mile oval racetrack at Bristol Motor Speedway. And these are just practice runs.
For many fans, the noise is is huge part of the excitement of Nascar. To the fans, who must shout to communicate, noise delivers the energy that keeps bringing them back for more.
The noise also makes it more hazardous not only for everyone else who spends time at a racetrack during a Nascar event. That is the finding from two studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, which reports that sound levels at tracks reach dangerously high decibel levels.
The first study by NIOSH, the government agency that conducts research on health and safety issues, was published by The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene in August 2005. It focused on tests conducted at Bristol Motor Speedway.
A co-author of the studies, Dr. Luann E. Van Campen, said NIOSH viewed Bristol as a worst-case scenario for noise because of the bowl-like stadium track surrounded by stands that rise 21 stories. Chemical and noise exposures were measured at Bristol and at an undisclosed race team shop. The study found chemical exposure to be low but noise exposure high.
“Employees involved in stock car racing are routinely exposed to extreme levels of noise, and auditory damage will ensue eventually,” according to the report’s conclusion. “More immediate concerns include the occupational risks posed by possible noise-induced fatigue, stress and miscommunication.”
Chucri A. Kardous, a NIOSH engineer and a co-author of the studies, said the noise level of 43 cars during a race was equivalent to a jet engine, which is 140 decibels.
“It’s higher than what we call here at NIOSH an allowable limit,” he said.
The second study, a follow-up that includes other tracks, was not available as it was being prepared for publication. But some of the results were presented last fall at a gathering of the Acoustical Society of America.
As in the first study, peak sound levels exceeded 140 decibels during races. To put that in perspective, noise becomes painful at 125 deciels; even short term exposure to decibel levels at 140 can cause permanent hearing damage. This is the loudest recommended exposure to noise with hearing protection. NIOSH typically recommends having protection when levels exceed 85. An abstract of the second study also noted how quickly the noise reached that level: “in less than a minute for one driver during practice, within 2 minutes for pit crew and infield staff, and 7 to 10 minutes for spectators during the race.”
That exposure could last for three or four hours, the duration of a race.
Kardous said he could not find any other studies of noise at racetracks. The Nascar spokesman Jim Hunter said officials had not focused on the matter since the 1970s, when noise became an issue primarily among people living near racetracks.
But the NIOSH findings are hardly a shock to those who spend time at the track. The seven-time champion Richard Petty has blamed racing for his hearing loss and now wears a hearing aid.
After 32 years of racing everything from go-karts to stock cars, including 14 seasons in Nascar’s premier Cup series, the driver Jeff Burton is a victim, too.
“My hearing’s not great, but there’s a reason for that,” he said as teams arrived for the Sharpie 500 race Saturday night. “When I was younger, I didn’t worry a whole lot about it. But I do now. Maybe too late.”
Many drivers use custom-molded plastic earplugs during races; Burton wears foam plugs. He said he did not know the Noise Reduction Rating for his ear protection. The rating indicates the number of decibels a protection device can block.
Crew members and other Nascar staff members typically wear communication headsets during races. Nascar requires its employees to wear protection. The headsets protect the ears but lose some of their effectiveness when the volume is turned up to allow communication among staff and crew. Fans who use similar headsets to listen in on scanners of driver-crew conversations face the same loss of protection, Kardous said.
There have been no studies conducted to determine the proper Noise Reduction Rating for drivers, crew members and fans at Nascar events. One of several recommendations from the first report included further studies on proper protection levels for earplugs and headsets. Those recommendations have not been followed.
Thais Morata of NIOSH, another co-author of the studies, said it would be up to Nascar, drivers or teams to approach the institute about further research. No studies are planned.
There may be another option. Nascar could use mufflers to reduce the noise during races.
“That’s the primary source of the noise, so obviously, that would be the top recommendation if we could make it,” Kardous said.
But Hunter said that Nascar tried mufflers in the 1960s and that they did not have a significant effect on decibel levels. Besides, it would be a hard sell for fans, who prefer to attend practices and races without any hearing protection.
Excerpted from an article by Viv Bernstein, published 2007, New York Times.