Secondhand Noise: The Latest in Noise Safety Research

Did you know that the number one complaint in calls to New York City’s 311 line (for non-emergency reports) regards noise? Downtown Manhattan’s noise levels can frequently reach 95 decibels, which is far above the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended average exposure level of 70 decibels. Some scientists are now calling noise “the new secondhand smoke” because of its significant, but under-recognized, detrimental effects.

We focus on noise safety periodically because of the multiple adverse impacts that excess noise can have on people’s health and well-being. Excess noise is also an important lab safety issue. So, here is some of the latest information on noise’s impact in cities across the world and what some places are doing to address noise pollution.

Studying New York’s Noise Safety Problem

As noted above, Manhattan’s noise levels can reach 95 decibels (dBA). These readings have prompted New York University to begin a five-year study, The Sounds of New York City, that is monitoring noise in the city. Unfortunately, there are no studies available on changes in city noise levels over time – whether noise pollution is getting worse. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that it is. This includes the rising number of 311 complaints about volume and increases in noise-related lawsuits and hearing problems.

Regrettably, city noise is not an equal-opportunity offender. Poorer and racially segregated neighborhoods are exposed to higher levels of noise pollution. A 2017 study by the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley demonstrated an ambient noise difference of almost two decibels between neighborhoods having a median annual household income below $25,000 and neighborhoods with incomes above $100,000.

Noticing the Impact of Noise Pollution

As we’ve noted elsewhere, human bodies suffer multiple detrimental effects from noise safety issues. These include annoyance, stress, the risk of cardiovascular disease, and a decrease in cognitive performance. From a lab safety perspective, comprehension and the capacity for focused attention also suffer when the body is under stress from excess noise. Loss of hearing can also contribute to lab safety accidents when staff cannot hear instructions correctly, or miss problematic sounds altogether.

Noise can even follow us outside of work, on vacation for instance. As we’ve reported earlier, the US National Parks are barraged with various noises, specifically aircraft, road noise, and industrial noise pollution that mostly drifts in from outside the parks. Most commonly, this results from drilling for oil and natural gas. And while airplane noise has actually decreased over the past 35 years, due the development of quieter engines, this has been offset by an increase in the volume of flights.

Seeking Stricter Noise Level Recommendations

Standards in the U.S. lag noise protection in the European Union, which has better recognized the dangers of noise on its citizens. While OSHA recommends an average of no more than 85 dBA over an eight-hour work shift, and the EPA recommends no more than 70 dBA over a 24-hour period, the E.U. set a significantly lower standard of 40 dBA back in 2009.

Addressing the Noise Problem with Creative Solutions

Many regions and industries in the US are already seeking to address secondhand noise with new noise safety solutions. Most of road noise comes not from engines, but from tires interfacing with roads. In Texas, the direction of rain-draining grooves in concrete is being changed, so tires align with the grooves. Phoenix is experimenting with adding old, shredded tires to concrete, both dampening road noise and effectively recycling over 6,000 tires for every four-lane mile of road. Other cities are actively regulating and fining everything from tricked-out hot rods and motorcycles to helicopters and leaf blowers.

Naturally, we have also tackled noise safety with our dedicated lab furniture. To learn more about the noise safety features in our IonBench dedicated lab furniture, contact Tim Hawkins via email or at 1-888-669-1233.