Erica Walker had a studio in her Brookline, Mass. apartment where she worked as a bookbinder and furniture maker. That was until a family with two rowdy children moved in above her.
The kids ran amuck, disrupting her sleep and work. Ear plugs weren’t enough to blot out the commotion. Aside from anger and a sense of lost control, the noise increased her heart rate and made her stomach feel like it was dropping, she says.
That’s when Walker realized that noise is a public health problem, not merely an annoyance. She set up her own “mini study” on how the clamor was affecting her. She monitored sound levels in her apartment and sent saliva samples to a lab to measure her stress levels.
Walker ultimately sold her craft equipment and returned to school to study public health. Today she is assistant professor of epidemiology and director of the Community Noise Lab at the Brown University School of Public Health. “We treat noise like a first world problem—like a sacrifice we should have to make for modern conveniences. But it’s a serious environmental stressor,” she asserts.
Our daily soundscape is a cacophony of earsplitting jets, motorcycles, crying babies, construction sites or gunshots if you’re in the military. Noise exposure is the primary cause of preventable hearing loss. Researchers have identified links between excessive noise and a heightened risk of heart disease, metabolic disorders, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and impaired cognition. Even wildlife suffers. Blasting oil drills and loud shipping vessels impede the breeding, feeding and migration of whales and dolphins.
At one time, the federal government had our back… and our ears. Congress passed the Noise Control Act in 1972. The Environmental Protection Agency set up the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) to launch research, explore solutions and establish noise emission standards. But ONAC was defunded in 1981 amidst a swirl of antiregulatory sentiment.
Impossibly Loud and Unhealthy
Daniel Fink. a physician, WHO consultant, and board chair of The Quiet Coalition, a program of the nonprofit Quiet Communities, likens the effect of noise to the invisible but cumulative harm of second-hand smoke. About 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. who report excellent to good hearing already have some hearing loss. The injury can happen after one loud concert or from years with a blaring TV. Some people are more genetically susceptible to noise-related hearing loss than others.
“People say noise isn’t a big deal but it bothers your body whether you realize it or not,” says Ted Rueter, director of Noise Free America: A Coalition to Promote Quiet. Noise can chip away at your ears or cardiovascular system even while you’re sleeping. Rueter became a “quiet advocate” while a professor at UCLA two decades ago. He was plagued by headaches, fatigue and sleep deprivation caused by the hubbub of Los Angeles, he says.
The louder a sound is, and the longer you are exposed to it, the more likely it will cause nerve damage and harmful fluid buildup in your inner ear. Normal speech is 50-60 decibels (dBs). The EPA recommends that 24-hour exposure to noise should be no higher than 70 weighted decibels over 24 hours (weighted to approximate how the human ear perceives the sound) to prevent hearing loss but a 55 dB limit is recommended to protect against other harms from noise, too.
The decibel scale is logarithmic. That means 80 dB is 10 times louder than 70 dB. Trucks and motorcycles run 90 dBs. A gas-powered leaf blower, jackhammer or snow blower will cost you 100 dBs. A rock concert is in the 110 dB range. Aircraft takeoffs or sirens? 120 dBs.
Walker, the Brown professor, says that sound measurements often use misleading metrics, though, because they don’t include low frequency sound that disturb the body. The high frequency of a screeching bus will register in decibels but the sound that makes your chest reverberate is not accounted for, she explains. ‘How loud?’ is a superficial take when it comes to noise, Walker says.
After realizing the impact of noise on her own health, Erica Walker was inspired to change careers and become director of the Community Noise Lab at the Brown University School of Public Health.
Fink adds that the extent to which noise impairs hearing is underestimated. People assume hearing loss is due to age but it’s not inevitable, he says. He cites studies of older people living in quiet, isolated areas who maintain excellent hearing. Just like you can prevent wrinkles by using sunscreen, you can preserve hearing by using ear plugs when attending fireworks or hockey games.
You can enable push notifications on a Smart Watch to alert you at a bar exceeding healthy sound levels. Free apps like SoundPrint, iHEARu, or NoiseTube can do decibel checks, too, but you don’t need one, says Fink. “If you can’t carry a conversation at normal volume, it’s too loud and your auditory health is at risk,” he says.
About 40 million U.S. adults, ages 20-69, have noise-induced hearing loss. Fink is among them after experiencing tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears) on leaving a raucous New Year’s Eve party in 2007. The condition is permanent and he wears earplugs now for protection.
Fewer are aware of the link between noise pollution and heart disease. Piercing noise is stressful, raising blood pressure and heart rate. If you live near a freeway or constantly barking dog, the chronic sound stress can trigger systemic inflammation and the vascular changes associated with heart attacks and stroke.
Researchers at Rutgers University’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, working with data from the state’s Bureau of Transportation, determined that 1 in 20 heart attacks in New Jersey during 2018 were due to noise from highways, trains and air traffic. That’s 800 heart attack hospitalizations in the state that year.
Another study showed that incidence of hypertension and hardening arteries decreased during the Covid-19 air lockdown among Poles in Krakow routinely exposed to aircraft noise. The authors, comparing their pre-pandemic 2015 results to 2020 data, concluded it was no coincidence.
Mental health takes a hit, too. Chronic noise can provoke anxiety, depression and violence. Cognitively, there is ample evidence that noise disturbance lowers student achievement and worker productivity, and hearing loss among older people can speed up cognitive decline.
Noise also contributes to health disparities. People in neighborhoods with low socioeconomic status and a higher percentage of minority residents bear the brunt of noise. Affluent people have the means to live far from airports, factories, and honking traffic.
Out, Out, Damn Noise
Europe is ahead of the U.S. in tackling noise pollution. The World Health Organization developed policy guidelines used by the European Environment Agency to establish noise regulations and standards, and progress reports are issued.
Americans are relying too much on personal protective equipment (PPE) instead of eliminating or controlling noise. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention rank PPE as the least useful response. Earplugs and muffs are effective, says Walker, but these devices are “a band-aid on a waterfall.”
Editing out noise during product design is the goal. Engineers have an arsenal of techniques and know-how for that. The problem is that these solutions aren’t being applied.
A better way to lower the volume is by maintaining or substituting equipment intended for common use. Piercing building alarms can be replaced with visual signals that flash alerts. Clanking chain and gear drives can be swapped out with belt drives. Acoustical barriers can wall off highway noise. Hospitals can soften beeping monitors and limit loudspeaker blasts. Double paned windows preserve quiet.
Editing out noise during product design is the goal. Engineers have an arsenal of techniques and know-how for that. The problem is that these solutions aren’t being applied, says Jim Thompson, an engineer and editor of the Noise Control Engineering Journal, published by the Institute of Noise Control Engineering of the USA
Engineers have materials to insulate, absorb, reflect, block, seal or diffuse noise. Building walls can be padded. Metal gears and parts can be replaced with plastic. Clattering equipment wheels can be rubberized. In recent years, building certifications such as LEED have put more emphasis on designs that minimize harmful noise.
Walker faults urban planners, too. A city’s narrow streets and taller buildings create a canyon effect which intensifies noise. City planners could use bypasses, rerouting, and other infrastructure strategies to pump down traffic volume. Sound-absorbing asphalt pavement exists, too.
Some municipalities are taking innovative measures on their own. Noise cameras have been installed in Knoxville, Miami and New York City this year and six California cities will join suit next year. If your muffler or audio system registers 86 dB or higher, you may receive a warning, fine or citation, similar to how a red-light camera works. Rueter predicts these cameras will become commonplace.
Based on understanding how metabolic processes affect noise-induced hearing loss in animal models, scientists are exploring whether pharmacological interventions might work to inhibit cellular damage or improve cellular defenses against noise.
Washington, DC, and the University of Southern California have banned gas-powered leaf blowers in lieu of quieter battery-powered models to reduce both noise and air pollution. California will be the first state to ban the sale of gas-powered lawn equipment starting 2024.
New York state legislators enacted the SLEEP (Stop Loud and Excessive Exhaust Pollution) Act in 2021. This measure increases enforcement and fines against motorists and repair shops that illegally modify mufflers and exhaust systems for effect.
“A lot more basic science and application research is needed [to control noise],” says Thompson, noting that funding for this largely dried up after the 1970s. Based on understanding how metabolic processes affect noise-induced hearing loss in animal models, scientists are exploring whether pharmacological interventions might work to inhibit cellular damage or improve cellular defenses against noise.
Studying biochemical or known genetic markers for noise risk could lead to other methods for preventing hearing loss. This would offer an opportunity to identify people with significant risk so those more susceptible to hearing loss could start taking precautions to avoid noise or protect their ears in childhood.
These efforts could become more pressing in the near future, with the anticipated onslaught of drones, rising needs for air conditioners, and urban sprawl boding poorly for the soundscape. This, as deforestation destroys natural carbon absorption reservoirs and removes sound-buffering trees.
“Local and state governments don’t have a plan to deal with [noise] now or in the future,” says Walker. “We need to think about this with intentionality.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”