Collecting Data – Noise in the City’s Community Lab Sets Its Sights on Eastie

Noise in the City’s Community Noise Lab was developed by researcher Erica Walker to take a more creative look into the relationship between community sound and noise issues and corresponding health impacts—both physical and mental.

Walker, who earned an ScD (Doctor of Science) degree from Harvard, has been interested for several years on how noise impacts health. At a community meeting last week, Walker said that she wants to bring her Community Noise Lab to Eastie and begin engaging the community on how noise impacts their daily lives.

“When I first started out I assumed what the noise issue (in the city) was and what the impacts were but I quickly realized this going to take a community effort,” said Walker. “So I’ve been grappling with what I want this Community Noise Lab to be. Typically, in academia we do a top down approach to studying these issues but I wanted to try something different and try a bottom up approach.”

The bottom up approach, explained Walker, will start with no assumptions on how noise impacts residents living in Eastie. However, Walker will collect real time noise monitoring data using sound measuring technology, as well as an app that residents can download to their phone. Through the NoiseScore, an in-house smartphone app, residents here can register a noise event and provide notes on how the event made them feel both physically and mentally.

Walker will also look for volunteers in Eastie to take part in some lab-based experiments on how individuals respond to noise by measuring brain waves, stress and cardiovascular changes.

“We anticipate monitoring in about 20 homes in East Boston,” said Walker. “We would like to measure in both a hot season and cold season for a one-week period.”

Upon completion of the study Walker said she could then begin to digest the data and make recommendations on how noise could be mitigated–like expanding the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) soundproofing program in the area.

“This could lead to a revaluation of the FAA’s soundproofing criteria,” said Walker. “Right now that criteria is based only on the sound you can hear-those a-weighted decibels or dB(A)–but there are other factors at play. I always use this example; imagine you are waiting for a bus at a bus stop and you can hear the bus coming and you can hear when the brakes start squeaking. But even if you put your fingers in your ear you can still feel the vibrations of that sound in your body, the rumbling in your chest even though you are blocking out the actual sound. So there is a complete picture of sound that is not only heard but felt physically and I’m interested in how both those aspects of sound affect people.”

A few years back Dr. Audrey Smargiassi, an associate professor in the Department of Environment and Occupational Health at the School of Public Health at the University of Montreal, conducted a study on how noise pollution around Montreal Airport affects the health of residents.

The scientific study found that levels of noise, or residents complaining about high levels of noise was higher in proximity to transportation sources like airports; for example measured noise levels near Montreal’s airport surpassed World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines; and aircraft noise significantly impacts noise levels but it is unclear if aircraft noise is worse for health than exposure to noise from other transportation sources.

Smargiassi pointed out that a 1999 World Health Organization (WHO) study concluded that the available evidence suggested a correlation between long-term noise exposure above 67-70 a-weighted decibels or dB(A) and hypertension. Smargiassi found these levels not only near the Montreal airport and under flight paths, but also in close proximity to major highways and roadways.

However, Smargiassi said it was interesting to note that the airport dispersed annoyance noise levels to a larger area both close to the airport and under flight paths while highways and roadways’ annoyance noise levels were only a problem directly alongside the highways and roadways. She concluded that while highways and roadways pose just as much impacts to residents’ health and well-being, the airport seems to affect far more people in Montreal.

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