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The Green Room: Sound Matters- Noise And Its Impacts

Barbara Lucas
89.1 WEMU
The mixing board at LIVE in Ann Arbor

Approximately 15 percent of Americans under age 70 have preventable noise-related hearing loss. New research is showing that seemingly benign levels of noise can have impacts, and the effects can go far beyond just hearing loss. In this month’s edition of 89.1 WEMU's “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas explores sound in our environment and it’s potential effects.

Sure, unwanted sound is annoying, but, is it harmful?  New research is finding that noise can have a wide range of unexpected effects.  Could it become the new “second-hand smoke,” something we tolerated initially, but now know is affecting our health?  In this month’s installment of WEMU’s “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas explores new things we’re learning about sound in our environment.

As far as your hearing goes, which occupation would you guess poses more of a risk:  Jet plane repair, or preschool teachers?

In a study by Dr. Rick Neitzel at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, the answer was schoolteachers.

Neitzel:  At the end of the day, when we looked at the exposures, we found that the preschool teachers had the same amount of noise as flight technicians, which boggled my mind. 

How can that be?  He says it’s the duration of the noise that is key. 

Neitzel:  There’s two bits of the equation—one is intensity of the exposure and the other one we always gloss over, but is just as important, is how long was the exposure?

Dr. Nietzel says we need to look at what we are doing not just on the job, but the rest of our day, and night, as well.  He says even listening to music through ear buds can cause hearing loss, if added together, the volume plus duration exceeds a safe dose.  In his study of New Yorkers… 

Neitzel:  We found that people were spending about 6% of their year listening to music, but getting 57% of their dose.  So a very brief activity was contributing the majority of most people’s exposure.

I’m at a club called LIVE in downtown Ann Arbor.  The audio engineer shows me her sound meter—it’s 85 decibels in here.

BL:  Do you ever wear earplugs when you do this?  Engineer:  Not for here.  This isn’t that much.  He’s loud (referring to the singer) but yeah, I do pretty good.

Dr. Neitzel says 85 decibels is not a dangerous level, but says newly developed “musicians earplugs” reduce the volume, while allowing the music to be fully enjoyed, and cost under $20. 

Neitzel:  The city of San Francisco requires that in places like this earplugs are available for sale, but in Minneapolis, the proposition is that they hand out the air plugs for free as part of an education campaign to prevent customers giving themselves a hearing loss unknowingly.

According to Dr. Neitzel, research is showing the impacts of noise are surprisingly far-reaching.

Neitzel:  There is a growing body of evidence that noise is not just bad for your ears, in fact, maybe that’s the least bad effect it might have.  It’s actually associated with coronary heart disease, heart attacks depression anxiety, all of these other health effects.

He says this may be due to the inability to get a good night’s sleep. 

Neitzel:  We know that sleep disruption is a very strong predictor of cardiovascular disease. So living next to that freeway, Even if you think you've grown used it, your nervous system never grows used to it.  

But Dr. Neitzel says even high-noise exposure which is limited to daytime also correlates with increased heart disease.

Neitzel:  It may be in fact that noise is just a general stressor to your system.

New research by the University of Toronto shows that even some infant white noise sleep machines pose risks if left on too long, or placed too close to the baby’s head.

Some of the machines tested even exceeded levels allowed by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, a standard about which Dr. Neitzel already has concerns.

Neitzel:  So manufacturers will hold that up and say “If OSHA says it’s safe, it’s a safe level.  The best estimates say that one out of every four workers exposed at that quote unquote safe level are going to get a hearing loss after a career. There is no other exposure we tolerate this for. But for noise we’ve set it at as an allowable risk.  Which I think it's totally unacceptable.

Meanwhile, other scientists are questioning acceptable noise impacts on animals, as well.  

Gill: This is our system for specific birds.  So far we’ve focused on chipping sparrows… 

I’m on a campus walkway adjacent to a pond at Western Michigan University, with Dr. Sharon Gill, a biologist who is analyzing the vocalizations of birds and frogs in urban areas.  She says if they are able, some species will sing at a higher pitch to be heard over the din.

Gill:  If birds or any other animals aren't able to deal with the increase in noise by changing their vocalization one of the questions is whether that leads to them moving out of the area, they just can't handle being in that kind of noise environment.

Dr. Gill says any decrease in usable habitat due to noise is a concern.

Gill:  It seems like they're always would be someplace else for them to go but we are in a matrix of land-use change:  Urban centers developing, we are surrounded by agricultural fields, we've lost native prairie, we don't know where there are always going to end up.

BL:  Has it made you more aware of things you could possibly do without being as noisy like maybe raking with a hand rake? Gill: I hate leaf blowers! We use hand rakes-- I find them ineffective, they are just blowing things around, what's the point?

Although her research is on animals, she’s concerned about human health as well.

Gill:  It's really really loud and the users have to wear ear protection and you know there's something wrong!

In fact, approximately 15 percent of Americans under age 70 have preventable noise-related hearing loss.  But it isn’t just the health of our ears or hearts.  According to Dr. Sharon Gill, it’s the health of our minds and souls as well.

Gill:  Once we started thinking about noise, we can't go anywhere without going, “It's impossible to get away from it!”

The idea that people and animals alike have a natural and perhaps adaptive tendency to avoid some types of noise seems to be in evidence at Millenium Park in Grand Rapids.  Most of the park is full of people, but this area is deserted, although it’s next to a lovely small lake.  Could it be the racket of this small oil pump?

Now I’m in a farm field in Saline, next to an enormous oil well pump jack.  The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution on May 21st to oppose new oil drilling in our area, noise being the first in the list of reasons given.   

Fear of noise from diesel trucks figures prominently in the battle against the gravel mine proposed for a remote spot in Waterloo Recreation Area. 

Dr. Gill says there is a new trend in national parks to identify and post quiet zones, which have become surprisingly popular destinations. 

Gill:  We've been talking with some local nature Conservancy's around here to say can we go to your sites and identify quiet sites that would be worthy of additional protection so if you have additional quiet site and your park let's make sure it stays that way.

Dr. Gill feels that in this age of compounding stressors, noise is an issue we should not ignore.

Gill:  So we have climate change overlaying everything. And then we have land-use changes and then we have air pollution and then there's light pollution and we have to understand all these pieces and ultimately how they all fit together if we hope to preserve some areas for our natural world and not just for us, because I don't think our world is going to as rich if we don't have the beauty around us. 

For both animals and humans, researchers are finding that sound does matter.  

Barbara Lucas, WEMU News.


1.)   Research by Dr. Rick Nietzel, University of Michigan

2.) Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners Resolution Opposing Oil Exploration and Drilling in Washtenaw County

3.)    “Infant Sleep Machines at Maximum Volume Reported as Hearing Risk” New York Times, March 3, 2014

4.) Research by Dr. Sharon Gill, Western Michigan University

Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.
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