The U.S. lags behind other industrial nations when it comes to establishing and enforcing federal noise standards, and the problem may boil down to one familiar battle: economics vs. the regulatory process. Stiff resistance to even the suggestion of stronger environmental noise standards leave many wondering if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has any power when it comes to revising out-dated noise standards or even enforcing standards put in place.
Noise pollution awareness is an uphill battle it seems, but New York City has made formidable progress over the past 15-20 years in toning down its volume. Anyone else remember the constant blare of taxi horns in Manhattan prior to the mid- to late 1990s, when laws were put in place to silence them? Although New York has worked hard to make the city less horrible in the noise pollution department, it still has a long way to go - as do most U.S. cities.
A recent test of sound levels at a handful of bars, gym, and restaurants in New York City measured noise levels so high that guests and employees exposed to the noise for just two hours are put at risk, and the establishments could be in violation of OSHA safety standards if anyone was bothering to enforce them.
But audiologists say that even if these businesses were in compliance with OSHA standards, it wouldn’t be enough to protect workers’ hearing. The fact is, the U.S. trails other industrialized countries when it comes to federal noise protection standards.
The New York Times did a recent “sound tour” of Manhattan, using a noise docimeter to measure decibel levels at 37 businesses including gyms, shops, bars and restaurants. Guided by Rick Neitzel, assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Risk Science Center, the dosimeter used A-weighting, a science that mimics the human ear’s sensitivity to sound at different frequencies.[i]
Nietzel, who has a substantial background in noise exposure research, in New York City and elsewhere, formatted the dosimeter to record various doses, based on standards established by OSHA, the National Institute for Occupations Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The docimeter was used to measure noise levels for exposure periods of 20 minutes to eight hours.
If you’re not familiar with how OSHA’s decibel exposure formula works, allow me to describe it as simply as possible. Basically, OSHA requires workers who are exposed to 90 decibels for eight hours to wear hearing protection. Ninety decibels is the approximate noise equivalent of heavy truck traffic.
OSHA states that when noise increases by five decibels, the noise workers are exposed to actually doubles. That means workers who needed hearing protection when exposed to eight hours at 90 decibels can only work four hours without ear plugs if the decibel level goes up to 95.
This might seem reasonable, unless you have worked in a 90-95 decibel environment for years, in which case you’re probably suffering from tinnitus and some significant level of hearing loss, not to mention possible cardio-vascular illness, high blood pressure, stress, and a sleep disorder. And harmful noise exposure is not limited to industrial environments. Teachers exposed to classroom noise for years are suffering from serious hearing loss by the time they reach middle age. If you work in a noisy restaurant with lots of hard surfaces off of which noise ricochets, or a bar in which conversations require yelling to be heard, or a gym with aerobics or spin class music blasting at 105 decibels - you’re probably at risk. Toll booth workers, shopping mall employees, telephone call center staff – and the list goes on, as noise today is an ubiquitous problem that many people have come to accept as part of daily life.
But other countries are doing a better job at complying with established noise standards. In fact, the U.S. is number 23 when it comes to noise exposure standards, tailing Argentina, Chile, Australia and the UK (to name just a few) in noise pollution protection. Britain is taking noise pollution very seriously, as it proved last week when Hyde Park police pulled the plug on a Bruce Springsteen/Paul McCartney concert that ran 10 minutes past the community’s noise curfew.
In fact, Britain has a Web site where people can calculate their daily doses of noise. Canada conducts audiological testing on its teachers annually to make sure they are not going deaf, and to take measures to protect those who are. Brazil and Australia have programs in place that call for routine risk assessments and revisions to broaden the scope of noise-related health and hearing protection and preventive initiatives.
Some powerful U.S. organizations may see to it that the U.S. stays at the bottom of the noise awareness pile despite the health risks of high decibel work environments. In 2010, OSHA reminded employers that providing earplugs for hearing protection in noisy work environments was only meant to be a temporary measure, and the agency would begin enforcing regulations requiring employers to soundproof noisy workplaces that did not comply with decibel limit recommendations. The move was necessary, OSHA representatives said, because too many workers were being harmed by workplace noise.
Additionally, the decibel limit was to be lowered to 85 – the same standard set in 21 of those 22 countries that rank ahead of the U.S. in noise exposure safety. India, home of the world’s two noisiest cities (Mumbai and Kolkata) is the only other country with a 90 decibel worker safety threshold. Plus, under the stricter guidelines, employers would need to acknowledge the change to from five to three decibels doubling the risk of hearing loss.
Before it had a chance to reach public service announcement status, OSHA’s mandate was slapped down by the National Association of Manufacturers and the United States Chamber of Commerce, who claimed the revised guidelines would be too expensive.
Audiologist and President of the National Hearing Conservation Association Laura Kauth says that the general consensus of hearing health professionals is that the U.S. should be adopting the 85 decibel limit in the workplace, and acknowledging the three-decibel standard for noise dose doubling, since regardless of the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce objections, U.S. employees are at risk under existing standards.
The New York Times study recorded the average noise level on a recent Saturday night at Manhattan restaurant Beaumarchais at 99 decibels. Under OSHA’s updated standards, exposure to the noise levels in this eatery becomes unsafe to workers after only 19 minutes on the job.
Enforcement of noise regulations at gyms, bars and restaurants in New York is largely non-existent. When employees complain about noise levels, their objections are almost never being reported to OSHA. Noise control proponents say that lack of awareness at the federal level could be partly to blame. The only federal department assigned to address environmental noise, the Office of Noise Abatement, was defunded 30 years ago under President Ronald Reagan, and States were notified then that they would no longer receive federal assistance to curb noise pollution.
Just one month after OSHA proposed the stricter guidelines in 2010, the agency withdrew its proposal.
[i] Working or Playing Indoors, New Yorkers Face an Unabated Roar, Cara Buckley, New York Times, July 19, 2012
The interactive map below rates 100 cities surveyed from noisiest (100) to quietest (1). Each city was checked out to determine whether it has laws limiting excessive noise, such as from construction, honking horns, or barking dogs. Next, the Texas Transportation Institute presented study officials with a list of the most traffic-congested towns, and Boeing (of airplane fame) produced a list of cities that impose a curfew on airports' overnight flights. Finally, the percentage of people who report sleeping seven hours or less per night was contributed by Experian Consumer Research. .
(Graphic courtesy of Men's Health Metrograde, May 2009)
If you love peace and quiet, then Hartford, Connecticut might be a great place to live. Hartford logged the quietest zip code in a survey of 100 U.S.cities, but it’s the loudest cities we’re interested in.
Rated on a scale of one to 100 (one being the quietest – hello, Hartford!) and 100 being the loudest (Detroit – anyone surprised?), some of the results are a bit unexpected; Bangor Maine, the hometown of Author Stephen King ranks much louder (74) than Los Angeles (50).
When it comes to noisy, all the usual suspects are here – New York (86), Chicago (95), Miami (96), Philadelphia (97). In California, Oakland scores the second highest ranking for noise (99) and San Francisco is not far behind at 93; Houston and Dallas, Texas are in the top 10 at 92 and 90 respectively.
Urban life is noisy, everyone knows this; but many Americans can’t imagine living any other way. However, those people who love their lives in the city may not be considering the repercussions of daily exposure to high noise levels, which affects everything from our blood pressure and heart rate, to our sleep patterns. Noise can make us sick. Even if we think we’ve grown accustomed to the din of our surroundings, our bodies are affected by noise in a way that can rob us of our hearing, ability to concentrate, and even ability to heal after illness or injury. Children raised in noisy environments have a harder time than their peers with school work. Elderly people exposed to high noise levels experienced exaggerated symptoms of illness, anxiety, depression, and sleep deprivation.
Noise is a part of the modern world, but the more aware we are of how it affects us and how we can protect ourselves and our loved ones at home, at work, in our schools, hospitals and public buildings, the sooner we can address the seriousness of noise pollution in a meaningful way.
Do you live in one of the country's noisiest cities, or did you in the past? Tell us what you think of living with noise. Has it affected your health, your hearing, or your ability to sleep? What measures have you taken, or considered taking, to reduce noise in your worrld?
A persistently noisy workplace more than doubles an employee's risk of serious heart disease, suggests research published online in Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Young male smokers seem to be particularly at risk,according to the study's findings.
The researchers base their findings on a nationally representative sample of more than 6,000 U.S. employees, aged 20 and up, who had been part of the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 1999 and 2004.
This study included detailed household interviews, addressing lifestyle and occupational health, medical examinations, and blood tests.
Participants were grouped into those who endured persistent loud noise at work, to the extent that it was difficult to talk at normal volume for at least three months, and those working in more comfortable surroundings.
One in five (21-percent) workers said they put up with a noisy workplace for an average of almost nine consecutive months. This group, whose average age is 40, also tended to smoke and weigh more than their peers working in quieter work environments, adding to the group's risk factors for heart disease.
Workers in persistently noisy workplaces were between two to three times as likely to have serious heart problems as their peers in quiet workplaces.
The association to heart disease was particularly strong among workers under 50, who made up more than 4,500 of the total sample. They were between three and four times as likely to have angina or coronary artery disease or to have had a heart attack.
Blood tests of these workers did not indicate particularly high levels of cholesterol or inflammatory proteins, both of which are associated with heart disease. But diastolic blood pressure, which measures the pressure of the artery walls when the heart relaxes between heartbeats, was higher than normal, a condition known as isolated diastolic hypertension, or IDH. This is an independent predictor of serious heart problems.
The findings suggest that those employees regularly exposed to loud noise at work were twice as likely to have IDH.
The authors speculate that loud noise day after day may be as strong an external stressor as sudden strong emotion or physical exertion, the effect of which is to prompt various chemical messengers to constrict blood flow through the coronary arteries.
Researchers conclude: "This study suggests that excess noise exposure in the workplace is an important occupational health issue and deserves special attention."
Source: British Medical Journal (BMJ)
Every year, approximately 30 million people in the United States are occupationally exposed to hazardous noise. Noise-related hearing loss has been listed as one of the most prevalent occupational health concerns in the United States for more than 25 years. Thousands of workers every year suffer from preventable hearing loss due to high workplace noise levels. Since 2004, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that nearly 125,000 workers have suffered significant, permanent hearing loss. In 2009 alone, BLS reported more than 21,000 hearing loss cases.
Exposure to high levels of noise can cause permanent hearing loss. Neither surgery nor a hearing aid can help correct this type of hearing loss. Short term exposure to loud noise can also cause a temporary change in hearing (your ears may feel stuffed up) or a ringing in your ears (tinnitus). These short-term problems may go away within a few minutes or hours after leaving the noisy area. However, repeated exposures to loud noise can lead to permanent tinnitus and/or hearing loss.
When no sound barrier is in place, loud noise can also create physical and psychological stress, reduce productivity, interfere with communication and concentration, and contribute to workplace accidents and injuries by making it difficult to hear warning signals. Noise-induced hearing loss limits your ability to hear high frequency sounds, understand speech, and seriously impairs your ability to communicate. The effects of hearing loss can be profound, as hearing loss can interfere with your ability to enjoy socializing with friends, playing with your children or grandchildren, or participating in other social activities you enjoy, and can lead to psychological and social isolation.
When sound waves enter the outer ear, the vibrations impact the ear drum and are transmitted to the middle and inner ear. In the middle ear three small bones called the malleus (or hammer), the incus (or anvil), and the stapes (or stirrup) amplify and transmit the vibrations generated by the sound to the inner ear. The inner ear contains a snail-like structure called the cochlea which is filled with fluid and lined with cells with very fine hairs. These microscopic hairs move with the vibrations and convert the sound waves into nerve impulses–the result is the sound we hear.
Exposure to loud noise with no noise barrier in place can destroy these hair cells and cause hearing loss!
What are the warning signs that your workplace may be too noisy?
Noise may be a problem in your workplace if:
- You hear ringing or humming in your ears when you leave work.
- You have to shout to be heard by a coworker an arm's length away.
- You experience temporary hearing loss when leaving work.
How loud is too loud?
Noise is measured in units of sound pressure levels called decibels using A-weighted sound levels (dBA). The A-weighted sound levels closely match the perception of loudness by the human ear. Decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale which means that a small change in the number of decibels results in a huge change in the amount of noise and the potential damage to a person’s hearing.
OSHA sets legal limits on noise exposure in the workplace. These limits are based on a worker’s time weighted average over an eight hour day. With noise, OSHA’s permissible exposure limit (PEL) is 90 decibels for all workers for an eight hour day. The OSHA standard uses a five decibels exchange rate. This means that when the noise level is increased by five decibels, the amount of time a person can be exposed to a certain noise level to receive the same dose is cut in half.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has recommended that all worker exposures to noise should be controlled below a level equivalent to 85 decibels for eight hours to minimize occupational noise induced hearing loss. NIOSH has found that significant noise-induced hearing loss occurs at the exposure levels equivalent to the OSHA PEL based on updated information obtained from literature reviews. NIOSH also recommends a three decibel exchange rate so that every increase by three decibels doubles the amount of the noise and halves the recommended amount of exposure time.
Here’s an example: OSHA allows eight hours of exposure to 90 decibels, but only two hours of exposure to 100 decibel sound levels. NIOSH would recommend limiting the eight hour exposure to less than 85 dBA. At 100 decibels, NIOSH recommends less than 15 minutes of exposure per day.
In 1981, OSHA implemented new requirements to protect all workers in general industry (e.g. the manufacturing and the service sectors) for employers to implement a Hearing Conservation Program where workers are exposed to a time weighted average noise level of 85 decibels or higher over an eight hour work shift.
Hearing Conservation Programs require employers to measure noise levels, provide free annual hearing exams and free hearing protection, provide training, and conduct evaluations of the adequacy of noise deadening materials in use unless changes to tools, equipment and schedules are made so that they are less noisy and worker exposure to noise is less than the 85 decibels.
Sound that is undesirable for human hearing is called as noise. When there is a lot of noise in the environment, it constitutes what is known as noise pollution. Noise pollution can be caused due to various sources – there is street noise, traffic noise, noise in public transport places, noise in playgrounds and parks, noise in the shopping malls, noise in workplaces… the list is endless. One of the greatest sources of noise pollution is the airports, and anyone staying close to an airport will attest to that.
Sources of Noise Pollution
Sound is measured in a unit known as decibel. Though there is no fixed particular decibel limit to decide when sound becomes noise, it is understood that a continuously high decibel limit will constitute noise pollution. Some areas do designate their own sound limits, which of course vary from one legislation to another. In the United States, most states have a sound limit of 65 dB in the daytime and 55 dB in the nighttime, applicable to the streets. Anyone crossing this limit would be causing noise pollution.
However, all these designated sound limits are too ambiguous, because most appliances we use in factories as well in the household go much beyond the prescribed limits. The following are some of the sources of noise pollution that we are quite familiar with, but generally ignore:-
* Appliances in the home such as mixer grinders, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, etc. together cause a cumulative sound of about 87 dB. This itself is above the sound limits in most areas. On top of that, if loudspeakers, television sets and music systems are used with high volumes, then we can well imagine how much noise pollution is being created.
* Small factories using single unit machines would cause a sound of about 98 dB and above. The sound will definitely go higher as the number of machines increase.
* Airplanes cause the highest sound among all – 150 dB. But road vehicles are also great contributors of noise pollution. These vehicles include the trucks, buses, tractors, SUVs and even motorcycles and most cars.
* Then there are lots of environmental sources of noise pollution that cannot be ignored. Continuous noises are the most distressing. Noise coming from sources such as dripping taps and ticking of clocks can contribute to environmental noise pollution.
Effects of Noise Pollution on Health
Noise pollution can take a severe toll on human health in the long run. These effects will not become apparent immediately, but there could be repercussions later on. The following is a list of the kinds of effects noise pollution will have on human health after continuous exposure for months, and even years:-
* The most immediate effect is a deterioration of mental health. As an example, people who are living too close to airports will probably be quite jumpy. Continuous noise can create panic episodes in a person and can even increase frustration levels. Also, noise pollution is a big deterrent in focusing the mind to a particular task. Over time, the mind may just lose its capacity to concentrate on things.
* Another immediate effect of noise pollution is a deterioration of the ability to hear things clearly. Even on a short-term basis, noise pollution can cause temporary deafness. But if the noise pollution continues for a long period of time, there’s a danger that the person might go stone deaf.
* Noise pollution also takes a toll on the heart. It is observed that the rate at which heart pumps blood increases when there is a constant stimulus of noise pollution. This could lead to side-effects like elevated heartbeat frequencies, palpitations, breathlessness and the like, which may even culminate into seizures.
* Noise pollution can cause dilation in the pupils of the eye, which could interfere in ocular health in the later stages of life.
* Noise pollution is known to increase digestive spasms. This could be the precursor of chronic gastrointestinal problems.
Controlling Noise Pollution
Governments are making their efforts for controlling noise pollution, but we must appreciate the difficulty of the task. Unless and until we take care of ourselves, the problems of noise pollution will always loom large. Here are some ways in which we can make individual efforts at reducing noise pollution for ourselves and for others:-
* We must constantly check up on the appliances we use at home. Most of them have rubber insulation that act for sound proofing. But over time, this insulation may wear out, and that is when the noise pollution will begin. Keep track of which appliances need maintenance, and replace insulation if needed.
* Growing trees is a very significant way in which roadside noise can be curtailed. Trees act as buffers for absorbing the sound that is produced on the streets and hence reduce noise pollution. That is the reason why roads with trees on both sides seem to be more silent and peaceful. Grow trees around your house if you can. It will protect you from the noise on the streets. This will also help if you stay close to an airport.
* Do not honk horns in your vehicles unless it is absolutely necessary. We all know how easily traffic sound limits are trespassed when there is a traffic jam. We might be desperate to get through, but honking horns will not solve any issues. It will only add to the noise pollution.
* If you are working in a factory that has a lot of noise issues, make it a point to wear earplugs and muffs. If you are the owner of the factory, provide these things to your workers.
(Excerpted from an article by By Neil Valentine D’Silva)