Reducing Noise with Technology: A Health Matter

by SoundPrint Team

World renown environmental psychologist and noise pioneer Arline Bronzaft discusses how we can use technology to (1) collect data (2) reduce loud sounds and noise, and (3) begin work towards enacting legislation to promote safer listening and noise levels.

Bronzaft, Arline L., PhD, Advisor to SoundPrint and professor Emerita at the City University of New York 

In 1978, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published the booklet Noise: A Health Problem that noted: “Noise loud enough to cause hearing loss is virtually everywhere today. Our jobs, our entertainment and recreation, and our neighborhoods and homes are filed with potentially harmful levels of noise.” Forty years later, this statement remains true. Recent articles and newspaper stories underscore the fact that not enough is being done in the U.S. to lower the decibel levels of environmental noise. Undoubtedly, the defunding of the Office of Noise Abatement and Control in the federal EPA in 1981 by then President Ronald Reagan resulted in the federal government no longer believing it was obligated to carry out the mandate of the 1972 Noise Control Act to promote an environment that would protect citizens from harmful noises. Leaving the obligations of lowering decibel levels to the states but without federal funding to assist with their efforts put noise abatement on the back burner. Some cities passed their own regulations but, for the most part, without federal backing, noise curtailment did not move forward as quickly as it should have.

However, these past 40 years did find stronger research declaring the harmful impacts of noise on mental and physical health. Furthermore, citizens formed local groups to combat intrusive sounds from overhead airplanes, nearby railroads and highways, loud equipment, etc. Yet, despite some successful legal challenges to intrusive noises, the United States lags behind Europe in noise curtailment. For example, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health states that workers exposed to less than 85 dBA will not be likely to lose hearing. The Federal Aviation Industry still uses 65 dBA as the standard before ameliorating noises in communities along the paths of overhead aircraft noise. The European Union acknowledges lower sound levels as harmful.

As a result, more and more people, and at younger ages, are suffering from some hearing loss largely due to exposure to loud sounds. Additionally, many people deny hearing loss and compensate for this impairment by playing the television louder or raising the volume on their headphones. Have you ever noticed how often you’ve been asked you to raise your voice when speaking with another person? While hearing aids can improve hearing ability, many people refuse to wear them. More to the point, reducing exposure to loud sounds and noise should be at the forefront in attempting to reduce hearing loss.

The impact of hearing loss on mental and physical health is well known. Hearing loss may make one less sociable or more isolated. The stress of not being able to readily converse and participate in activities can affect you physically and mentally. Also, sounds, more frequently identified as noises, which may not be very loud (e.g., sound from overhead airplanes, nearby roadways and railroads, next door neighbors’ parties, and lawn equipment) can adversely affect our overall health and diminish our quality of life. Teaching and learning have been found to be impeded in classrooms exposed to noise from within the school or from nearby railroads, aircraft, or highways.

Technology may provide the push to reducing the decibel levels around us by providing individuals with the ability to measure intrusive sounds. Professors at New York University are placing sensors on the streets to get sound readings as they occur and hope these data, which they will share with the New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection, will lead to greater enforcement of the city’s Noise Code to reduce noise in the city. Other cities like Boston and Berlin have developed phone applications that people can use to measure sound levels in their communities. In cities across the United States, many people have complained that loud sound levels in restaurants do not allow them to engage in conversations while dining out. To address this concern, an app called Soundprint was developed to allow diners to measure sound levels in restaurants.

Reducing loud sounds in our environment is not a matter of way but of will. Using technology and collaboration to measure intrusive sounds, we can gather the necessary data to demand legislation on reducing noise in communities and promote safe listening.