Education, Noise and Cleaning

It probably should come as no surprise, but a study reported in the June 2005 issue of The Lancet, a monthly medical journal published in London, says that exposure to high levels of aircraft noise can impair the development of reading skills and memory retention in children. The publication indicated the findings were significant because,“while the effects of air pollution are well known, less is understood about the way environmental noise affects child health…and education.”

The study involved more than 2,800 children, aged nine and ten, attending 89 primary schools near major airports in the Netherlands, Spain, and England. Along with aircraft noise, investigators assessed the effects of road traffic noise and other environmental noise factors and then analyzed these effects on learning abilities as well as health.

Pooling the data from the three countries, the researchers found that exposure to noise impaired reading comprehension and even delayed reading age levels by up to two months in the United Kingdom and by up to one month in the Netherlands. They also noted that in a similar but much smaller study conducted in Munich, Germany, the reading scores of children attending a school near a local airport actually improved once the airport was closed.

Overall, the author concluded that exposure to high levels of noise in schools in all settings, from elementary to higher education, was not conducive to a healthy educational environment and was“associated with increased stress in children, lower reading scores, impaired memory, and reduced quality of life.”

Defining Noise

Noise is often defined as “unwanted sound” and it is becoming ubiquitous throughout our environment, not just near airports and freeways. High intensities of noise have been associated not only with educational problems but also with health-related complications in newborn infants and numerous ailments in adults including noise-induced hearing loss and high blood pressure.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) says that noise is increasingly becoming a health problem in the United States and estimates that as many as 30 million workers in a variety of settings are exposed to hazardous noise. NIOSH says that this exposure can cause hearing loss, create physical and psychological stress, reduce productivity, affect learning, interfere with communication and contribute to accidents and injuries by making it difficult to hear warning signals. In Europe, John Monks, Director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, said in April 2005 that workplace noise was a growing concern for European workers not only in traditionally “noisy” sectors such as agriculture and construction but also in offices, restaurants and schools.

And, in a study conducted by the University of Houston to evaluate the environmental effects of noise on patients and employees in a healthcare setting, it was found that:

• Persistent noise levels of 100 decibels (dB) resulted in serious reduction in alertness and attention and in temporary hearing loss.
• Levels of 90 to 95 dB produced hearing loss as well, along with skill and task errors and speech difficulty.
• Noise levels from 70 to 85 dB — about the level of most commercial vacuum cleaners — interfered with normal and telephone conversation and made it difficult to think.

It was not until work-related noise levels reached approximately 60 to 65 dB that those in the Houston study rated the working environment as “good” and acceptable.

Noise and the College Campus

In the typical college or university setting, many “unwanted sounds” are produced by external environmental conditions, such as those mentioned in the Lancet study. But they are also generated by large numbers of students and teachers talking, food preparation, eating and conversation in large dining areas, HVAC systems and machinery.

A study conducted at Western Maryland College sought to identify the noisiest locations on campus and the culprits causing the noise. The findings, which can be applied to many other college settings, include these:

70–78 (decibels) Students in cafeteria
70–80 Arcade areas of student union building
72–85 Construction work on campus
82 Road traffic (cars)
84 Students in school dining hall
84–86 Hair dryers
90 Stereos played on campus
93 Loud car radios
95 Vacuum cleaners

And certain areas on campus, such as music halls and gymnasiums, tend to be noise “centers” and pose an added acoustic challenge — reverberation.

Reverberation is the collection of reflected sounds bouncing off of surfaces in enclosed areas such as auditoriums or busy, open-design student union buildings. In fact, in colleges and universities, it often poses a problem wherever large groups of people congregate. Usually college and university facilities attempt to lower noise levels by adding sound-absorbing panels in walls and ceilings or installing these materials on nonparallel surfaces to help lessen reverberation. Carpeting, rather than hard-surface flooring, is often selected for classrooms because of its sound-absorbing properties.

Is Cleaning Noisy?

Those studying the effects of noise on people and our environment are becoming increasingly convinced that different types of tools and equipment for cleaning — vacuum cleaners, floor machines, and even janitorial carts — are a disturbing source of noise in various settings, including colleges and universities. In fact, one study of healthcare and educational facilities in the Houston-Galveston area ranked cleaning equipment among the worst culprits. In this study, digital sound level meters were placed at various locations throughout the facilities to record noise levels at different times of the day. Included in the study were the sounds generated by intercom and telephone systems, doors, call bells, facility workers, and students as well as vacuum cleaners, floor buffers and carpet extractors.

A band that happened to be playing during the study was the loudest noise recorded. But cleaning equipment was found to be the second major source of noise with decibel ratings of 80 to 85 dB, followed by telephones (79 dB), call buttons and door buzzers (76 to 80 dB), and people (73 to 80 dB).

Reducing the Sound of Cleaning

Because cleaning tasks add substantially to interior noise problems, some facilities managers are now considering rather uncomplicated changes to help reduce these sound levels. For instance:

• In college and university washrooms, one option is to replace pump-style liquid hand soap dispensers with foam hand cleaners. Foam is less harmful to indoor air quality, and foam dispensers tend to be quieter as well.
• Roll paper towels with pull-down levers can be irritatingly noisy. Some educational facilities have replaced them with quieter single-fold towels or automatic, no-touch paper dispensers that are very quiet.
• Maintenance and cleaning crews are including oil and spray lubricants in their janitorial closets to quiet squeaky janitorial carts, doors, and the wheels of cleaning equipment, such as buffers and extractors, that must be transported from one area to another.

Manufacturers of cleaning equipment are also becoming more aware of — and concerned about — the effects of cleaning and noise. Robert Robinson, Sr., an International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA) board member and President of Kaivac, Inc., of Hamilton, Ohio, says, “More manufacturers in the jansan industry need to evaluate their products and take steps to design cleaning equipment with reduced sound levels.”

He even suggests that noise be considered a “Green” issue along with Green Cleaning and the growing use of environmentally preferable cleaning products. “One of the goals of these [Green] products is to reduce cleaning’s impact on the worker, building occupants, and the environment,” says Robinson. “Cleaning equipment that produces less noise meets these criteria as well, reducing some of the fatigue and frustration that noise can cause and helping the cleaning professionals perform their tasks more efficiently.”

His company — which produces cleaning equipment originally developed for educational facilities — manufactures a no-touch cleaning system that applies cleaning solution to interior surfaces such as walls, floors, stairs and restroom fixtures and then rinses the chemicals and soils away. Kaivac has just introduced a line of quieter machines that produce less than 65 dB of sound — about the noise level of a muffled dishwasher. These machines are 15 to 20 dB quieter than the “loud” cleaning equipment in the Houston study mentioned earlier.

Quieting Vacuum Cleaners

Other common sources of unwanted noise in many facilities are vacuum cleaners, which can produce 70 to 80 dB of sound. And because more and more educational facilities are installing carpeting, efforts to quiet these machines can prove beneficial for both the cleaning professionals and the building occupants.

Some vacuum cleaner manufacturers have recently been taking steps to reduce the noise their machines make by installing quieter motors and adding more sound insulation. They have also added airtight casing, which has substantial sound-reducing properties and, when used with HEPA filters, can improve indoor air quality as well.

Protecting the Educational Environment

Educators, staff, and students often have little or no control over the noise levels in their college environment. But many administrators now realize noise can be a factor in how well students learn and perform.

Luckily, the cleaning industry, now so involved in reducing cleaning’s impact on the environment, is also taking steps to reduce the noise levels produced by their tools and equipment. By asking their local jansan distributors to help them find quieter cleaning tools and products, facilities managers can take significant steps toward protecting their educational environment from unwanted noise.

Robert Kravitz, a communications professional for the cleaning and buildings industries, is a former building service contractor.

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