Int'l Noise Awareness Day Q&A with Arline Bronzaft
In anticipation of the 28th Annual International Noise Awareness Day—taking place April 26, 2023—the Center for Hearing and Communication (CHC) caught up with longstanding friend and ally Arline Bronzaft, PhD, who just happens to be one of the world's leading authorities on noise.
Through her work as a teacher, researcher, lecturer and author, Arline has been a leading voice in the crusade to document the adverse effects of noise on health and learning and to develop solutions to lessen noise and promote the benefits of a quieter world. We're proud to count Dr. Bronzaft among the partners CHC worked with to establish International Noise Awareness Day (INAD) in 1996.
CHC had the opportunity recently to connect with Arline on the subject of (what else?) noise. We touched on her distinguished career, her enduring ties to INAD, and the progress taking place now that could positively impact our hearing, health and quality of life for years to come.
CHC: What prompted you to study noise and become a leading voice in noise awareness and education?
Arline: Well, it came about in a class in the 1970s. I was a professor at Lehman College—environmental psychology—looking at the impacts of variables in the environment on human behavior, which was started at the City University of New York's Graduate School. So I was teaching a course that spoke about the impacts of noise on people's behavior. At the end of the classroom time, a parent came up to me to tell me that her child attended a school next to an elevated train track, and the noise from the trains was disrupting the children's learning, and the parents were going to sue the city of New York. Well, as a wife of an attorney, I said, "In order to sue, you have to prove that their learning has been impeded," and she turned to me and said, "Help us prove this. Can you help us?"
So I went to the school, spoke to the principal, and he was an activist principal. This is the 70s, and I said, "You know, I'd like to look at the reading scores of the children next to the train and those on the quiet side of the train." But actually, if you walked into the classroom, you really didn't need test scores to demonstrate that these children were not doing well in that classroom. You could see they couldn't learn. The trains were coming every four-and-a-half minutes. The noise was so loud. But data, data, data. And so I conducted the study. And we found that the children, by the sixth grade, who were facing the train noise were nearly a year behind in reading compared to children on the quiet side of the building. And as an academic, I published those results. But affecting children got great attention.
The parents in the community, the media, and the public officials came to the school—there was so much attention. And I did have a relationship with the Transit Authority, had learned that they had come up with a method to quiet the tracks. Asked them, and with the support of everyone else, to test out the procedure to lessen the noise in the classroom, and went to the Board of Education to get acoustical ceilings for those classrooms. And people said, "How did you get two agencies like that to listen to you, Dr. Bronzaft?" I use one word: miracle. But they listened, and the result was that the classes were quieter.
And then I was asked to go back and see if the reading scores improved. So I went back, and yes, when the classrooms were quieter, the children of both sides of the school were reading at the same level, and this clearly demonstrated that noise impacted on children's learning. I did publish that second paper, but once I got involved in this, it just didn't stop. Then people began to ask me about impacts of noise in their communities. And these two studies put me on another path.
I retired very early as a college professor. I was 55, and my husband said to me, "How do you retire at 55?" I said, "Something else will find me," and I guess noise found me because I learned from these two studies that noise impacted adversely on children's learning behavior. But we could do something about it. I did not ask the Transit Authority to get rid of its trains. I did not ask airports to get rid of their planes. What I asked for was, "Can we find some way to lessen the impact?"
Fortunately the Transit Authority did find some way, and, interestingly enough, the Transit Authority did hire me as a consultant to work on noise issues. So I got involved further, and I can say up to this day, that parent asking me to go to that school made a big difference in my life. Do I spend every day with a noise issue? The answer is yes. I serve on GrowNYC's Board of Directors, and we have a noise section, and if you go to that section at GrowNYC, it says, "If you have a noise problem contact Arline Bronzaft." Now that is on a site in New York City. I rest my case.
CHC: Are there findings from your research that you think most compellingly illustrate the harmful effects of noise?
Arline: The literature on the impacts of noise—on mental and physical health—has grown considerably. Remember when I did my study, in 1975? We're in 2023. We have sufficient literature that noise creates stress—stress on the body—and can lead to physiological damage. We have studies linking cardiovascular disorders to noise. People who live near airports have an increased risk of being admitted to hospitals for heart conditions. We know noise disrupts sleep, and sleep is vital for health. We know noise affects children's learning, and children also learn at home. And even if you're short of developing a physiological ailment, noise diminishes quality of life.
People who live with aircraft noise, as my daughter and her family who live in Bayside have to endure, cannot sit out in their backyards. Oh, they did at the beginning of Covid, when there were fewer planes. They were able to watch and hear birds, and birds are good for our health. So you've deprived people of sitting in their backyards. You've deprived people of watching television in their homes, unless they make it louder. Quality of life means a decent quality of life. And noise diminishes quality of life.
So the literature is plentiful. In fact in the late 70s, Russell Train, of the EPA, said we have enough literature. Yes, maybe we need more studies. But we should do something about it. It's now 2023. We have the literature, and we even know some of the ways to do something about it. What we lack is the will, the will to do it.
Now, some people say if we abate noise, whether it's aviation, construction, whatever noise, that's costly. I mean, the aviation industry objects to our activities. Oh, they acknowledge that noise is annoying? Oh, no no. The literature shows it's more than annoying. But what about the cost to medical health? What about the increased risk for admissions to hospitals because of cardiovascular disorders? Who pays that bill? I say the citizens of the United States pay that bill. The bills that have to be paid to treat the ailments as a result of noise—that's money also. That doesn't get factored in. The aviation industry worries that it's costly for them to do something about it. I say it's costly, not only to the health of the people of this nation, but it's costly financially to all of us if we don't lessen the impact.
Let me add one other thing. When the Transit Authority quieted the tracks next to the school, they said they would quiet tracks near all of the schools in New York City, and I said, "You know, people live near the tracks. We have to quiet the tracks period for everyone." The Transit Authority agreed to use those procedures to lesson noise, and when they asked me to be a consultant, I worked with them in coming up with ways to reduce noise in the system. I learned a lot about transit noise. Now, here I am a psychologist. Never took an engineering course and yet was able to assist the Transfer Authority in designing quieter traction motors. I learned about the noise, saw the source of the noise, and worked with them on lessening it. So I know that there are ways to do it.
CHC: Given your history working with CHC to launch International Noise Awareness Day, can you tell us how this initiative came about nearly 30 years ago?
Arline: Here's the Hearing Rehabilitation Quarterly (right), from 1986, when the Center for Hearing and Communication had a conference in which they spoke about noise in the 1980s, and I was one of the speakers. So my affiliation with CHC goes back even earlier, and I have to compliment CHC for being concerned about noise so early.
I also have an issue of the Hearing Rehabilitation Quarterly from 1995, entirely dedicated to noise problems, in which I've written one of the articles, and Nancy Nadler had written one of the articles. So my ties to CHC go back before we started International Noise Awareness Day. But once I started the affiliation and met Nancy Nadler—CHC's Deputy Executive Director and Noise Center Director—CHC became more interested in noise, and we began to invite people from different parts of the city to talk about it, and that's how International Noise Awareness Day started. It came out of these discussions. And Nancy and I sort of hit it off very well, and we worked together to announce a day that people should become aware of noise.
The first International Noise Awareness Day, in 1996, was recognized by the Mayor of the City of New York. There was a proclamation, and the Center for Hearing and Communication had vans sent out in the city to measure people's hearing ability. It really was a big to-do, and it just caught on all over the world because noise is not just a U.S. problem. It's a problem internationally, and it affects all people. It doesn't discriminate. It's an offensive pollutant that doesn't discriminate.
So noise affects people everywhere. And I think that CHC taking on International Noise Awareness Day was really a terrific opportunity for people to recognize the harmful effects of noise and the benefits of a quieter world. Noise, loud sounds, even if you like them, will affect your hearing. That's a given. So musicians who love their music can still have hearing impairment because loud sounds will affect the hearing. In addition though, noise, as I've discussed, surely affects our mental health, our physical health, our children's learning. And I have to say that CHC provided information for groups internationally to learn more about the impacts of noise, so that when INAD comes around, they would have the data—the information they can use in their own cities, their own communities, to ask their public officials and the public to advocate for less noise. So I thank CHC for this opportunity.
CHC: To date, what progress has been made in educating the public about the harmful effects of noise and bringing about positive change?
Arline: Unfortunately, the EPA's Office of Noise Abatement and Control was essentially defunded in 1982. If we go back to the 1970s when EPA's office of noise abatement and control was set up, the Noise Control Act became law and excellent people were appointed to head up the office, and the United States was at the forefront of trying to curb noise. In fact, the literature from that office—and I have the original copies in my home—was excellent. But in the 1980s, the office was essentially shut down—it was defunded. I hypothesize that the pressure put on companies to lessen their noise caused this. However, the public wanted quieter air conditioners, quieter dishwashers, quieter washing machines, and I think it was the pressure of the public that did indeed lead to quieter appliances in our home.
I have to give the public the credit for pushing on this, and they continue to push on this. And now what I see is that more organizations have been set up. I belong to Quiet Communities. I belong to the Right to Quiet Group. We have at GrowNYC our noise section. So we have aviation groups throughout the United States that are combating aircraft noise, but not just in the United States, internationally. And so what I find is that we have more groups—more organizations than we did when we first started. That's a good thing. What isn't a good thing is that we still haven't gotten the will to employ the ways to reduce the noise.
But I did read, and I wrote about, Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, has just asked for flights at night to be cancelled. That landings early in the morning cannot take place there, and it was the government that pushed the airport to this action. That's one airport. But that is a significant action, and I think people should say, "Wait, if they could do it there, we could do it here."
We also did upgrade in New York City our noise control act. We in New York City have a department at DEP, Department of Environmental Protection, that has its own agents to try to curb noise. We see that cities across the United States are introducing legislation that will curb noise. The problem is, legislation is fine, but it needs enforcement. If we pass a bill, and don't act upon it, and don't have the agents to issue the violations, then what good is the legislation? So, although we have more legislation, what seems to be lacking is the enforcement arm.
We still do not have the federal government interested. That's very sad, because in the 70s we not only had the Office of Noise Abatement and Control, but they produced wonderful articles and booklets to inform people about noise. We don't have that now, and I do think we need the federal arm, and I know there's a group in Congress that is pushing for this, but we don't have it yet.
CHC: Are there developments in the field that inspire you to feel optimistic?
Arline: So what makes me optimistic is that more people are involved in the issue. And when more people get involved, there's a greater chance things will be done. That one airport now has restricted night flights—I think that's very important. And that we now have organizations across the United States combating aircraft noise—that is essential. So the positive is there's more interest in the issue, more involvement.
The negative: It's just taking too long. But I'm a patient person. My children have said they wished I was this patient when I was rearing them, and I said, "Wait, a mother's role is somewhat different." But I think what's happened as I've grown older, I've become more patient. I work with people of all groups. This has nothing to do with politics. Democrats, Republicans—they can all be interested in noise. So moving forward, I'm hoping this increased interest will lead to actions that will definitely lessen the impact. And let's not forget—we also have to heighten our interest in protecting our parks and quiet spaces, because quiet is good for health.
I'm working with two college students now at Columbia University on a noise project. I get calls from high school students who are interested in noise, and that encourages me. I'm getting calls from younger people, and if you go to the Department of Environmental Protection's website in New York City, we have the Sound and Noise Module. We actually have curricula for school children that anyone can look at and use internationally to educate children on the dangers of noise and the importance of quiet. So that's another thing that should make us all feel more encouraged.
CHC: Is there anything else you’d like to touch on?
Arline: I want people to understand when someone calls me, it's fortunate that I'm a psychologist because I listen to how people are feeling about the noise problem they're calling me about—whether it's a neighbor whose music is too loud, whether it's the aircraft. They're so emotional, they're so upset, and I listen. And even though I haven't yet helped them at that point, they thank me because I was the first person who really listened. And they feel better, even though I haven't done anything yet. And in some personal cases I can help. I think you have to listen to how people talk about how noise affects them. And when you are on a call with someone who is affected by noise, you get the real sense of how disturbing this pollutant is. I wish more people would do that.
And let me add another thing, if you respect your neighbor, you do not blast music at 6:00 a.m. If you respect your neighbor, you don't stomp on the floor. Respect is key. I urge everyone to consider respect, because that's what we should be doing with our interactions with others.
About Arline Bronzaft
Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D. is a Professor Emerita of Lehman College, City University of New York and an Expert Witness on noise impacts. Dr. Bronzaft conducts research, writes and lectures on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health.
She has written broadly on noise including Why Noise Matters 2011 of which she is a co-author, chapters in environmental books and encyclopedias, published articles in academic journals and has writings in the popular press.
She is frequently quoted in the media in the U.S. and abroad and in 2007 assisted in the updating of the 2007 New York City Noise Code.
Dr. Bronzaft has partnered with the Center for Hearing and Communication to promote noise awareness and education since the 1980s. In 1996, she worked with CHC to establish International Noise Awareness Day, a celebration now in its 28th year that continues to be observed across the globe.