Noise Is the New Secondhand Smoke

For the last 40 years, there’s been very little movement, if any at all on this issue… and there [are] fundamental regulatory forces in place here that are subject to inertia. …Now, just literally within the last year, …we’ve seen more movement on this issue than essentially in the last 50 years of U.S. history.

–Frank Lin, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor, Otolaryngology, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Like secondhand smoke, excessive environmental noise involuntarily exposes the public to conditions that increase their risk of disease. In the case of secondhand smoke, the preponderance of scientific evidence linking it to cancer finally convinced decision makers to take action.

Evidence on the harmful effects of environmental noise has reached a similar point. On October 1, 2016, members of nine scientific, medical, and legal organizations launched a national group, The Quiet Coalition (TQC), hosted by the nonprofit organization, Quiet Communities. TQC is a national umbrella organization that will build on the work of others. It was created to unite organizations and individuals in the fight against noise. TQC will bring medical and scientific knowledge to the public policy process and advocate for all Americans to make our world quieter, more sustainable, and livable. To that end, TQC will work with agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NICDC), and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to protect the health and hearing of workers and the public, and to provide incentives for developing quieter technologies and design.

The analogy between environmental noise and secondhand smoke is apt. Both involuntarily expose large sectors of the public to harmful conditions that increase their risk of disease. Decades of research work have shown conclusively that excessive environmental noise adversely affects health, learning, productivity, and environment. Why have decision makers been so slow to act on the issue of environmental noise? According to a newly published editorial in the American Journal of Public Health by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair of the Coalition, the answer lies in public policy. “Although noise was known to be a health hazard, it was treated as an environmental pollutant…with federal noise control activities assigned to the EPA.” These noise control activities were never adequately funded or supported, and federal and local health agencies were left with no meaningful responsibility. As a result, the issue has remained under the radar. This is changing now.

“The scientific evidence is incontrovertible: noise causes hearing loss and other health problems. We have a responsibility to speak up just as experts did when the dangers of smoking became known,” says Fink. There are decades of studies indicating that excessive noise is harmful to hearing and health. Furthermore, through recent discoveries, the mechanisms by which noise damages auditory cells, the nervous system, and the cardiovascular system are becoming clear. A wide range of government and professional organizations have published reports, and in some cases policy statements, on the problems of environmental noise. They include the CDC, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, American Public Health Association, American Academy of Otolaryngology, American Academy of Nursing, National Academy of Engineering, NICDC, President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, World Health Organization, and prominent researchers from Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and University of Michigan School of Public Health.

The health and hearing of many Americans are at risk because of regular exposure to excessive and unsafe noise levels in public venues like restaurants, clubs, at sporting events, and in areas of construction and grounds maintenance around schools, neighborhoods, and public parks. “Nearly 50 million Americans are affected by noise-induced hearing loss, many of whom also have tinnitus and hyperacusis. Many more are at risk for cardiovascular and stress-induced health problems,” says Fink. Researchers at the University of Michigan estimate that over 100 milllion Americans are exposed to unhealthy noise levels. “We are issuing a call-to-action to prompt federal agencies to address noise as a serious health risk,” adds Program Director Jamie Banks, PhD.

A major issue is the widespread misunderstanding that 85 decibels, an occupational noise exposure standard, is a safe noise limit to protect the public’s hearing. This standard has been misapplied and widely promulgated throughout the internet as a safe limit for a wide variety of venues and consumer products.  As Dr Fink explains in the AJPH editorial, NIOSH has recently made clear that 70 decibels is the average safe environmental noise exposure level to protect hearing and that much lower levels are needed to protect from other non-auditory health problems. “Using a standard that is not appropriate for the public increases the number of people who will suffer hearing loss and negative health consequences,” adds Fink.

Another issue is the lack of attention paid to many sources of noise that affect people’s everyday lives. To date, the only source of noise to garner the attention of federal policy makers is transportation – air, road, and rail. But other sources of excessive noise abound in our communities, including restaurants, concerts, theaters and clubs, sporting events, sirens and medical device alarms, household appliances, toys and video games, personal listening devices, and outdoor construction and lawn and garden equipment. Many of these are much louder and have far more impact on people’s lives than planes, trains, and automobiles.

More often than not…the noise that causes sensorineural hearing loss is not one deafening bang but decades’ worth of exposure to the high-decibel accessories of daily life: leaf blowers, car horns, highway traffic, movie theater sounds, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, loud music, and so on.

–Harvard Medical School Special Report, Hearing Loss: A Guide to Prevention and Treatment

“Public health policy to protect the nation’s health from environmental noise is long overdue,” says Banks. “We will provide decision makers with the scientific evidence needed to make informed policy decisions,” she adds.

By The Founding members of The Quiet Coalition

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