Editorial: Quiet, Please!

October
,
2015

Environmental management strategies have evolved from end-of-pipe treatment to waste minimization and pollution prevention to sustainable development. An important tool in managing for sustainability is life cycle assessment (LCA). In the article beginning on p. 26, Mary Ann Curran explains how to use this holistic technique to identify and quantify the potential environmental impacts of a product or process throughout its life cycle.

Most people are familiar with the three most common types of environmental pollution — air, water, and land. Other types of pollution — noise, light, thermal, and visual pollution — are less recognized. Noise pollution, in particular, has been on my mind a lot lately. About a block from our office, construction of a 50-plus-story apartment tower is in the pile-driving stage. The thumping noise from the site? has a pace of about 45–50 beats per minute, and varies from an annoying background tapping to the startling pounding of a gong that I can hear through earmuffs with a noise reduction ratio (NRR) of 28.

The effects of loud noise on hearing are well-known, and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Noise Exposure Standard (29 CFR 1910.95) outlines a rigorous program to mitigate the risks of noise exposure in the workplace. The standard mandates that if engineering and administrative controls on equipment or manufacturing processes fail to abate noise, the employer must provide personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as administer a hearing conservation program when exposure levels equal or exceed an 8-hr time-weighted average (TWA) sound level of 85 dBA. (For more on hearing PPE, see “Getting Serious About Workplace Hearing Protection,” CEP, May 2008, pp. 35–39.)

Auditory damage from industrial noise exposure is not the only cause for concern, though. Studies have linked environmental noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep disruption, cardiovascular disease, stress, annoyance, and impairment in the performance of complex mental tasks. Monica Hammer and her colleagues at the Univ. of Michigan estimated that in 2013, more than 100 million Americans were exposed to unhealthy levels of noise (the equivalent of a continuous average exposure level of >70 dBA of 24 hours), and that tens of millions more may be at risk of heart disease and other health effects.

According to Julian Treasure, a U.K.-based consultant on soundscapes and corporate brand sounds (think of the Intel tune), employee productivity is 66% lower in open-plan offices than in quiet rooms. He says the most destructive sound is other people’s conversations: “We have bandwidth for roughly 1.6 human conversations. So if you’re hearing somebody’s conversation, then that’s taking up 1 of your 1.6. Even if you don’t want to listen to it, you can’t stop it: You have no earlids. And that means you’ve just 0.6 left to listen to your own inner voice” — which you need to do your job.

Maybe because I’m surrounded by the nearly constant noise of the city, I have a great appreciation for quiet. If you want to find the quietest (and loudest) places in the U.S., check out the new maps — developed from about 1.5 million hours of recordings in parks, noise data from cities, and a machine-learning algorithm that predicts sound based on factors such as topographic features, vegetation cover, hydrology, and population density — created by the National Park Service’s (NPS) Natural Sounds and Night Skies Div. They are available at www.nature.nps.gov/sound/soundmap.cfm.

Cynthia F. Mascone, Editor-in-Chief

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Author Bios: 

Cynthia Mascone

Cindy Mascone is Editor-in-Chief of Chemical Engineering Progress, AIChE’s member magazine. She has more than 25 years of experience as a technical editor and writer, including four years as the head of her own freelance consulting business, Engineered Writing. Previously, she worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards.

She holds a BS in chemical engineering and engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon Univ., and has been an active member of AIChE and Society of Women Engineers....Read more

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