Decibel Level – Community Noise Lab sets its Sight on Mission Hill

By John Lynds

Boston has a Community Noise Lab.

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 a ScD (Doctor of Science) degree from Harvard, has been interested for several years on how noise impacts health. Walker said she wants to bring her Community Noise Lab to Mission Hill and begin engaging the community on how noise impacts their daily lives.

“When I first started out I sort of assumed what the noise issue (in the city) was and what the impacts were, but I quickly realized this is 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 Mission Hill. 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.

“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,” said Walker. “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.”

Walker has partnered with Mission Hill Health Movement and is reaching out to volunteers in the neighborhood to take part in some lab based experiments on how individuals respond to noise by measuring brain waves, stress and cardiovascular changes.

“We hope to inform, empower, and impact the communities we work with, while using their experiences to strengthen and advance our research,” said Walker. “We like to call this approach ride-sharing science,” Dr. Walker said, “While our final destination is public health, we will share our ride with others who have their own noise-related journeys and destinations.”

Dr. Walker’s research on the impacts of community noise is funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The two-year, $410,000 grant will fund a real-time sound monitoring network, which consists of a series of eight rotating sound stations; upgrades to Community Noise Lab’s smartphone app, NoiseScore, which allows residents to objectively and subjectively describe their environmental soundscape and map their responses in real time; a laboratory-based experiment examining the neurological underpinnings of noise exposure; and a series of community engagement activities ranging from sound walks to podcasts.

“Studies have shown that unpleasant and unwanted noise can trigger stress, contribute to cardiovascular-related hospital admissions and influence our health in other ways,’’ said Nancy Barrand, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “We are excited to learn what Dr. Walker and her team uncover from this pioneering work to help us better understand sounds impact on community health.”

Upon completion of the study Walker said she can then begin to digest the data and make recommendations on how noise could be better mitigated.

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