The health impact of noise is on the agenda of the American Public Health Association’s annual conference this year (Philadelphia, November 2-6), with four speakers scheduled to cover this topic along with the epidemiology of hearing loss, the definition of noise, the measurement of impacts, and a lack of public policy direction in the United States.

Addition of noise to the APHA program displays renewed recognition by the organization that unwanted and/or harmful sound, from low-flying aircraft to leaf blowers and loud noise in restaurants, bars, clubs, concerts, theaters, and sports arenas, has long-term health consequences for those exposed. The session has been endorsed by APHA’s Noise and Health Committee (within the Environment Section).

The session, “Environmental Noise: The New Secondhand Smoke,” is scheduled for Monday, November 4th, beginning at 8:30 a.m. This comparison with the effects that cigarette smoke has on nonsmokers nearby has prompted interest from the national media in the subject, including feature articles in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Washington Post.

Concern about community noise and occupational noise was formally recognized by APHA in 1968, with a policy declaration that there was “a dire need” for collaboration to control “nuisance noise.” Four years later, the United States Congress enacted the Noise Control Act stating that inadequately controlled noise presents a growing danger to the health and welfare of the Nation’s population. The Act created the federal Office of Noise Abatement and Control to educate, research, and regulate. However, funding for the Office ended in 1982. APHA, in 2013, issued a policy statement calling on public and private agencies to take steps to address noise pollution. The upcoming APHA session is one of the few of its kind on the subject in recent years.

“Awareness of noise and its adverse health impacts [now] needs to be raised and public policy is lacking,” Jamie Banks, founder and executive director of Quiet Communities, Inc., said. “More people than ever are exposed to harmful levels of noise causing auditory health effects such as hearing loss and tinnitus, and non-auditory health effects such as cardiovascular disease, cognitive and learning effects, and exacerbation of psychological conditions.”

Quiet Communities, Inc. was a leader in pressing APHA to recognize noise as a relevant subject for this year’s annual conference. Dr. Banks will be one of four speakers on the program presenting a proposed new definition of noise and describing research showing that reliance on decibels alone to measure noise overlooks other factors that impact on communities and health.

Others scheduled to speak are Dr. Arline Bronzaft, Professor Emerita of the City University of New York, a member of GrowNYC, and author of numerous publications including a groundbreaking report on how subway noise affects children’s learning; Dr. Mathias Basner of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who will argue for additional research to identify better ways to reduce harm caused by excessive noise, and Dr. Jennifer Deal, a Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist who has identified excessive noise as a significant cause of hearing loss in older people.

Dr. Bronzaft, who is a cofounder of The Quiet Coalition, a program of Quiet Communities, Inc., concurs that excessive noise compares with the harm that cigarette smoke is known to cause to nonsmokers nearby. In an abstract prepared for the APHA meeting, she argues that the lack of government interest in curbing noise has “devastating effects…in the face of solid scientific evidence.”

Dr. Basner, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Psychiatry, is responsible for research findings that show that at the same noise level, aircraft noise can be less disruptive to sleep compared to road and rail noise.  He gave a presentation titled “Why noise is bad for your health – and what you can do about it” at last year’s TEDMED event.

Dr. Leon Vinci, faculty with Drexel University, will serve as Moderator for the session. As a national leader on environmental health topics, he represents the APHA and NEHA professional organizations in several scientific fields, including noise control.

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