How to Find Your Quiet Place
Noise pollution and how it impacts our health, noise management technology, and Japanese forest bathing.
Hey all, greetings from Santa Monica!
When I lived in New York I dated a singer. Planning dates with her was a challenge. She asked me to pick date spots that weren’t too loud. She didn’t want to strain her voice by having to shout over the background noise.
Last week I organized a dinner in the West Village. One of my friends, who has hearing loss, placed a small, round metal disc on the table.
He explained the device was a personal sound amplifier that connected to his hearing aid via bluetooth. It focused his hearing aid toward the people speaking, while blocking ambient noise, making it easier for him to hear and participate in dinner conversation.
Loud noise is an inescapable part of city life. But what is it doing to our health?
I reflected on this when I read a study showing that noise levels in New York City have decreased. Average sound levels for 2021 are much lower than 2019 and 2020. It’s easy to see why: There’s less commuting to work. More people have been forced to socialize at home or outside.
The same trend has been documented in cities from Singapore to San Francisco. Amazingly, more city people say they can hear birds singing.
One silver lining of the pandemic: City life is quieter.
Why should we care about noise?
Health experts believe noise pollution is an important part of environmental health, like air pollution and water pollution.
It’s not just about the risk of hearing loss. Extended exposure to loud noise levels can increase the risk of hypertension, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, strokes, dementia and depression. A study from Paris found that the health impacts of noise can cost a person an average 10 months of a healthy life.
Noise is a big problem in cities like New York. There are more complaints to the city’s 311 hotline about noise than any other issue.
New Yorkers get used to the jackhammering, ear-splitting sirens and loud beeping trucks. But there’s nothing healthy about the city’s cacophony of sound.
Nine out of ten adults in New York City are regularly exposed to noise levels higher than the 70 decibels that the EPA considers to be harmful. The Atlantic ran a piece in 2018 titled “City noise might be making you sick.”
How does noise affect city life?
A 2018 study, the first of its kind on indoor venues such as restaurants and bars, showed that a significant number of New York City restaurants and bars are dangerous to people’s hearing health.
Some NYC neighborhoods are louder than others: the Lower East Side, SoHo, East Village, West Village, Chelsea, Flatiron and Murray Hill.
More than 75% of venues in these neighborhoods are rated Loud or Very Loud. They’re louder than neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and Upper East Side, which are more family-oriented, residential, and skew older in age.
People living in cities are regularly exposed to noise above 85 decibels from sources like traffic, subways, and construction. That’s enough to cause significant hearing loss over time. Listening to loud music through earbuds or headphones can cause hearing loss, too.
Unlike many other injuries, hearing damage is irreparable. Loud noise can damage cells and membranes in the cochlea. Over time it can kill the upper registers in your hearing, making it hard to make out what people are saying in conversation.
One quarter of Americans have hearing loss, according to CDC research. Up to 19 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 29 have lost some of their hearing. Hearing loss is three times more common in males than females.
Excess noise is a particular challenge for the elderly and those sensitive to noise, including many people with autism spectrum disorders. A study of schoolchildren found that exposure to excess noise impaired reading skills and speech perception.
Noise pollution is a bit like cigarette smoking or alcohol. It can seem harmless even as it’s causing serious damage to your health. Many people don’t realize the long-term impact of excess noise—not just on hearing health but also stress and chronic illness.
New digital tools to measure noise
I was at a busy restaurant in Tribeca. It was so loud you couldn’t have a conversation without shouting.
I opened the SoundPrint app on my iPhone. I used the app to measure the ambient sound at 95 decibels—very loud, unhealthy levels. I clicked submit, which added the measurement to SoundPrint’s public database to let the public see which venues are quieter and which ones are noisier.
I used the app to share a noise complaint with the restaurant. This puts restaurant managers on notice that their patrons find the place too loud and they may want to consider acoustical treatment (e.g. carpeting).
SoundPrint lets you find a restaurant based on sound levels. The app recommends cafes, bars and restaurants in each neighborhood that have quiet to moderate sound levels. There are measurements for retail shops, gyms, churches, arenas and numerous other venues. Users have submitted more than 150,000 local noise measurements on the app.
I learned about a project called Sounds of New York led by a team of scientists from NYU. It’s a first-of-its-kind research initiative to understand and address noise pollution in New York and beyond.
The system includes a hybrid, distributed network of sensors and citizens for large-scale noise reporting. City residents can label different urban soundscapes to identify and mitigate sources of noise pollution.
How can cities regulate noise?
Last week, Paris city council announced a new plan to crack down on noise pollution generated by motorcycles and other loud vehicles. The system will use a combination of microphones and cameras to map noise levels when sounds exceed a certain decibel level, like a motorcycle backfiring or an engine revving. The technology is part of a multi-year plan to combat noise pollution in residential and industrial areas across the city.
There are simple things cities can do to reduce noise: converting car lanes to bicycle lanes, pedestrian walkways or green space. Designing new public spaces with acoustics in mind.
Cities can set noise regulations for allowable maximum volume indoors. They can require bars and restaurants to put out warning signs that their noise levels may cause permanent hearing loss, and make earplugs available.
What we can learn from Japanese forest bathing
The antidote to excessive city noise may be found in nature. I’ve been reading about shinrin-yoku, the Japanese art of forest bathing.
Doctors are starting to think about nature not just as a place to recreate, but also as a social determinant of health. Healthcare systems are writing “nature prescriptions” for patients. The U.S. now has over 70 provider-based nature-prescription programs in 32 states.
Exposure to nature, scientists have discovered, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress-hormone levels, promotes physical healing, bolsters immune-system function, improves mood, and reduces inflammation.
One theory for this: The scent of plants, the sight of trees swaying in the breeze, the sounds of birds, streams, and rustling leaves may activate our body’s “rest and digest” functions, which are regulated by our parasympathetic nervous system.
The conclusion: An easy way to improve our health is by reducing our exposure to loud noise and spending more time in nature.
Most of us don’t need a doctor to tell us to go to the beach. But it’s nice when science backs up things we’ve always felt intuitively.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. How does noise affect you, and what do you do about it?
Until next week,
By Daniel Zahler
Every week I write an email newsletter with perspectives on health and wellness trends, and strategies & tactics on how to optimize cognitive, physical and emotional health. I hold a JD and BA from Harvard, have worked at Goldman Sachs and McKinsey, and advise global business leaders as a GLG council member.
Check out my articles in Thrive Global here.
There are a few things to do:
Follow me on Twitter.
Hit reply with your feedback and ideas :)
Share this post with others.