Table of typical sound levels in decibels dB (C) J Wiley & Sons Best Practices Steven BlissAge or Health-Related Noise Complaints in buildings
How hearing disorders, deafness, mental & neurological disorders relate to building noise & sound complaints

  • HEALTH RELATED NOISE COMPLAINTS - CONTENTS: Health-related noises and sound complaints. Age-related noises and sound complaints among older people. Disease or illness and noise or sound complaints. How to distinguish between sounds or noises traced to buildings and building components from health or age-related noise complaints. Electrical fields, emf, drone vibrations & microwave exposure as sources of buzzing or humming noise complaints. What to do about health-related or age-related noise complaints
  • POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about age or health-related noise and sound complaints
  • REFERENCES
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Age & Health-Related Causes of Noise & Sound Complaints:

This article discusses how to identify noise or sound complaints that may be health or age-related. This article series discusses noise and sound source diagnosis and control: how to inspect, diagnose & cure noise or sound problems in buildings. Information is provided about auditory (hearing), visual, historic, or other clues of building condition that explain various sounds heard in buildings.

Our page top table of relative sound levels (left) is from Best Practices Guide to Residential Construction, by Steven Bliss, courtesy of Wiley & Sons.



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How to Identify & Report Age or Health-Related Noises & Sounds in Building Interiors

Daniel Friedman - OPINION

First: the opinions and advice in this article series are based on our extensive experience in inspecting and diagnosing building related complaints and building defects, combined with experience in responding to complaints by building occupants about noises or sounds. Our experience includes working with people suffering from physical and mental health difficulties as well as the challenges imposed by normal aging.

The author is not a medical professional. Below we recommend that people complaining of noises or sounds that cannot be confirmed by others (presumably with normal hearing ability) should be sure to check with their primary care physician who in turn may recommend consulting with a neurologist, audiologist, or other trained professional who can help rule in or out potentially serious health concerns.

Second: noise complaints in buildings can be directly related to the health and well being of building occupants. Because responding to sound or noise issues may involve issues of physical or mental health, disputes between neighbors, and even immediate life safety concerns, it is important that the investigator proceed with both sensitivity to the needs of the individuals involved and caution lest an unsafe condition be underestimated or worse, ignored. Identifying and responding to noise complaints that may involve personal safety is a first priority.

Even for an individual who suffers from auditory hallucinations, not every noise complaint is hallucinatory. Investigating a noise complaint involving an elderly building occupant we learned that she suffered from auditory hallucinations and was certain that a neighbor was playing loud music. (The neighbor was not.)

But we were shocked to discover that a local contractor, taking advantage of the occupant's condition, obtained large, regular cash payments ostensibly for providing "security services". We learned that the contractor was calling the elderly occupant, pretending to be the neighbor, adding to her anxiety, provoking her to purchase additional "security services."

At NOISE / SOUND DIAGNOSIS & CURE we discuss how to locate the source of, identify and correct various building sounds and noises indoors or on occasion, noises from outside that penetrate indoors at annoying levels. While we touch on environmental noise coming from outside of buildings (aircraft noise, highway noise, noisy neighbors) the focus of this article series is on identifying and curing unwanted indoor noise sources in buildings - noise control.

Separately at SOUND CONTROL in buildings we provide a series of detailed articles on reducing unwanted building noise levels through building design, insulation, sound isolation, and noise barriers.

Actual versus Perceived Noises in buildings

Using our own terms to aid this discussion, we distinguish between actual noises or sounds in buildings and perceived sounds in buildings.

Actual noises (for our purposes here) are sounds that are caused by physical sources such as heating equipment, plumbing, or a neighbor playing music. Actual noises are transmitted from the source to the individual through air or in some cases through the conductivity of physical building components (floors, pipes).

Perceived noises (for our purposes) are sounds that are reported to have been experienced or observed by an individual, regardless of whether or not a physical source and actual instrument-detectable sounds are present. So perceived noises may include both actual noise and/or the perception of noise (or sound) that has in part or in total a neurological, or mental, or health-related basis.

Actual or "Physically-based" Building Noises or Sounds

Regardless of their source, actual noises are transmitted in buildings by two methods.

Airborne Sound: Sound waves traveling through air move between building areas - such as through open windows, doors, or stairwells.

Mechanically transmitted sound: When sounds move through solid building components such as floors, ceilings, walls, framing, carrying sound from one area to another the sound transmission is referred to more technically as impact insulation class transmission or IIC sound transmission.

In many cases the source of an annoying building sound may be obvious and we can move immediately to strategies for reducing that source to an acceptable noise level. But we also receive queries from people who have difficulty tracing a sound to its source, or who are unsure if a sound that they hear at a known source (say a humming sound at an electrical component) is normal or means trouble.

For unidentified sound sources, general advice on tracking down the source and cause of annoying building sounds and noises includes a procedure similar to our ODOR DIAGNOSIS CHECKLIST, PROCEDURE. Keep a noise log, noting

Health Related Noise Complaints in buildings

Sleep Mate white noise generator (C) Daniel Friedman

Health related noise and apparent noise sources can involve common aging or hearing disorders, dementia, or other serious medical conditions. Shown at left is the Sleep Mate™ sound generator produced by Marpac.

Watch out: medical advice from experts including neurologists, geriatricians, and psychiatrists can be very important when responding to noise & sound complaints.

There are multiple causes of dementia including

We recently investigated a case in which an elderly person in a Florida home had complained of loud voices and loud music for more than a year. Because it is normal for any individual's mind to find an apparently rational explanation for sensations that appear "real", the complainant was certain that the noise problem rested with her next door neighbor.

But reports from family members confirmed that their mother had the same complaints in two other cities, one in a hotel, another in a private home. In those cases family members were certain that the sounds were not actually occurring. We recommended a medical consult. -DF

We consulted in a different building noise complaint that was voiced by just one occupant of several in a home. Our client had consulted with his physician who did not find a medical cause for a hearing disorder. Before assuming that we could not help this individual we considered that because people's hearing sensitivity varies widely, together we needed to confirm that others did nor did not hear noises in the building. --DF

"Although no one would say that noise by itself brings on mental illness, there is evidence that noise-related stress can aggravate already existing emotional disorders. Research in the United States and England points to higher rates of admission to psychiatric hospitals among people living close to airports. And studies of several industries show that prolonged noise exposure may lead to a larger number of psychological problems among workers." - "Noise, A Health Problem", US EPA,

We recently investigated another mysterious music complaint involving the author's brother in law who wears hearing aids that incorporate a blue-tooth wireless function to permit easy use of a cell phone. But our brother-in-law began hearing music, intermittently. The problem was traced to his iPod that had been left on and transmitting music to his hearing aids. --DF

See details at Hearing Disabilities & Building Noises

Sleep disturbance and noise

"Human response to noise before and during sleep varies widely among age groups. The elderly and the sick are particularly sensitive to disruptive noise. Compared to young people, the elderly are more easily awakened by noise and, once awake, have more difficulty returning to sleep. As a group, the elderly require special protection from the noises that interfere with their sleep". - "Noise, A Health Problem", US EPA,

Here is an example sleep disturbance report:

I am a senior citizen (68) living alone, here in the Poconos in Pike County. Please note, I do not have tinnitis For the last 4 years, I have been suffering with a hissing sound in my house. I tried to locate sound engineers, listening devices and the like but, have not been successful. This noise always takes place in the hours between 9:00PM and 6:00AM and sometimes during the daylight hours. I have a fairly simple house with a sump pump which I just replaced, and a septic (grinder pump) that is approximately 24 yrs old. I am at my wits end and haven't had a decent night's sleep in all this time. Short of having someone spend the night at my house, I don't know what to do anymore. It is very difficult to get competent people to diagnose this problem. -- E.R.

Steps to Track Down a Night-Time Hissing Sound or Noise

We suggested some simple first steps in on-site detective work to track down this night time hissing noise:

The steps above were not sufficient, as E.R. continued.

When to bring in an expert for on-site noise or sound diagnosis & cure

In difficult cases such as this one, having an experienced person on-site when the noises are occurring, possibly using simple noise amplification equipment to help determine the direction from which sound is emanating, may be the only way to both make progress and avoid contusing medical health concerns for on-site sound problems.

Other medical conditions: If you or someone you are assisting is disturbed by noises whose presence is not verified by independent third parties, we recommend that you or the noise-disturbed person check with their physician. In addition to careful medical examination, use of hearing aids or a white noise machine (see SOUND CONTROL in buildings) may assist in these cases. Shown above is the Sleep Mate™ sound generator produced by Marpac.

Neurological Anomalies or Hearing Disabilities & Building Noise Complaints

Stair fall injury (C) Daniel Friedman

Hearing Disabilities often include difficulty in

Even when a noise is present at a discernable level, a person with hearing impairment may have difficulty accurately pointing to the direction from which a noise is emanating.

If you are hearing impaired or working with someone who is, recruit additional help from others and don't forget to consider that the apparent direction or source of a noise could be quite mistaken.

These limitations may interfere with the ability to identify of a hearing impaired person to identify and/or track the source of noises in buildings.

Also don't forget to check hearing aids themselves for noise sources; a poorly-fitting or low battery hearing aid may squawk, shriek, or emit periodic chimes, beeps, or with the newest units even voices announcing "low battery".

The author, who is hearing impaired, has on occasion received complaints from others nearby when his own hearing aid was making noises that he did not perceive.

Auditory Synesthesia & Sounds - Possible Relation to Building Noise Complaints?

Synesthesia (from Greek) refers to a joining of the senses. A stimulus in one sense modality (sight, touch, smell, hearing) consistently and involuntarily elicits a sensation in another modality. Saenz and Koch point out that "Synesthesia is a benign neurological condition in humans characterized by involuntary cross-activation of the senses, and estimated to affect at least 1% of the population."

Examples of synesthesia include

Saenz and Koch also report that auditory synesthesia occurs, presenting evidence from "four healthy adults [with no known hearing or neurological deficits] for whom seeing visual flashes or visual motion automatically causes the perception of sound". [1]

OPINION-DF: Although we have not found research specifically linking auditory synesthesia to building-related noise complaints, our opinion is that this cause should not be ruled out of the initial states of investigating building-related noise complaints when the investigator has not found an apparent explanation in a detected physical source of actual sounds.

We suspect that most synesthetes are aware of their condition and thus may be less likely to mistake auditory synesthesia for other building noises.

What we don't know is whether auditory synesthesia might also be induced in some individuals suffering from dementia, from an injury or from illness.

1. Saenz, Melissa and Koch, Christof, "The sound of change: visually-induced auditory synesthesia", Current Biology Vol. 18 No. 5 R650

Hum Noise Complaints - "The Hum"

Here is a final diagnosis of a noise complaint reported to us by reader C.C.

I write to inform you, I have at long last now got to the bottom of the noise thing. It wasn't X's fan/fan-heater the culprit, nor was it my gas boiler or hot water heater, but of all things I have apparently adopted a condition called 'The Hum', and I have been informed it occurs in both men and women over the age of 50.

I am almost 51 now, and having read up some about 'The Hum' on the Internet, I am now beginning to understand it. Its frustrating but I will just have to cope with it. 'The Hum' can be heard in one place only, like in-doors and that's where its happening with me, at home in my flat - it doesn't happen anywhere else.

It only happened to me slightly once the other day on my way home I heard the idle engine noise, as that's what is described as 'The Hum', and that's the exact sound I here. Its not noisy neighbour after all. I had my gas boiler/water heater checked yesterday and its all working fine. - C.C.

Sources of "The Hum" hearing low frequency vibration or buzzing sounds

Editor's note: research on the scientific basis of "the hum" low frequency hearing disturbances is incomplete, somewhat ambiguous, and ongoing. Here we pose several possible sources of this complaint. CONTACT us for critique or comments.

Normal human hearing perceives airborne vibrations or sound waves in the frequency range of 20 to 20,000 cycles or Hz.

In tracking down noise and sound complaints in or around buildings, investigators should also consider that in some individuals, hearing sensations such as a humming or buzzing noises may be triggered in or perceived by


Drone Vibrations Can Produce Perception of Humming Sounds - Unidentified Acoustic Phenomena

Some people may be particularly sensitive to low frequency vibrations in the environment, experiencing them as a humming sound without an apparent source.

Without exposure to detectable normal sound waves or without physical connection electrodes (Electrophonic hearing), exposure to vibrations (e.g. 56 Hz) or other stimulation, possibly even outside the auditory range of sounds commonly perceived by humans may stimulate perception of a humming sound. Sources of drone vibrations [our term] may include materials moving in underground piping, moving furniture, gasoline or other motors, and other distant activities.

- Moir, Tom, and Alam, Fakhrul, Massey University, Auckland New Zealand.

Electrophonic hearing

In hearing a similar condition is described as electrophonic hearing. Electrophonic hearing is the sensation of hearing a sound following stimulation of the brain by an audio-frequency current that is conducted to the individual by electrodes that are attached to areas of the head and/or body.

Synonyms for "the Hum" in the U.K. and other countries include the Bristol Hum, Taos Hum, Hueytown Hum,Largs Hum, Kokomo Hum and others.

Microwave-Induced Sound Sensations in People

Microwave hearing is the auditory perception (as sound) of microwave signals or "pulses" that impinge on the head. In literature reviewed by Seaman, an effect of microwaves on some individuals is the perception of sound following the generation of acoustic energy in the head.

Seaman explains that sound is produced through transmission by bone conduction to the inner ear and thence to stimulation of the auditory receptors in the cochlea, ultimately producing a neural signal that is processed or in our view, "perceived" by the auditory processing center of the brain - the individual "hears" sounds that were caused by microwaves.

Quoting Seaman:

The most frequently cited sequence of events used to explain auditory sensations resulting from microwave pulses, or “microwave hearing”, starts with transduction of microwave energy to sound in the head. In this explanation, the sound is then transmitted through cranial bones, i.e., by bone conduction, to stimulate hair cells in the inner ear.

Recently reported experiments with animals and humans indicate that sound conduction through bone itself is not necessary in bone-conduction hearing. Instead, sound generated inside the cranium is most efficiently transmitted through holes in the cranium that form channels to the inner ear: vestibular aqueduct, cochlear aqueduct, and/or perivascular and perineural spaces.

The short latency of cochlear microphonics reported for microwave hearing and the oscillation of the microphonics at the calculated brain resonant frequency are consistent with transmission through the channels. Thus, the channels are the most likely pathway for transmission of sound to the inner ear in microwave hearing. Consideration of this transmission pathway may be useful in reconciling results from various microwave hearing experiments. - Seaman, Ronald L.

Microwave induced sound is also referred to in the literature as the microwave auditory effect, microwave hearing, electrophonic effect, and emf microwave hearing.

Case Report: Questions & Comments Leading to Hum Noise Complaint Diagnosis

We include the original Q&A series on heating noises, fan noises, other noise complaints from this flat located in the U.K. to illustrate both our thinking and the practical difficulty, perhaps unreliability, of tracking down a sound source without onsite investigation work.

CC#1 - I live above a basement flat and the neighbour below informs me he doesn't run fans and his boiler is of normal sound. Thing is, ever since the neighbour came here 14 months ago, I hear a continuous rumbling sound excessively loud and can hear it all the way through my flat. If its not a fan and his boiler is working normal, what could the on-going rumbling sound be caused by? Would it be air in the heating lines? I never had the problem of the above noise before this person moved in. I've been here 5 years now, just over. - C.C.

DF#1 - I can't say from just your email if this is a mechanical noise being transmitted through ductwork or a more serious and possibly dangerous condition - if the boiler is not working properly it could be unsafe, so I'd suggest that a service call is needed as you are saying this is a change from normal behavior of the system. Some examples of heating noises that could mean trouble are OIL BURNER NOISE SMOKE ODORS.

CC#2 - I know the property was a house built between 1800-1837 and was converted into flats in the mid eighties. I was told the boilers/heating system has been in this place for fifteen years...the flats are of the Guinness Trust and I have been told all the boilers here have been serviced, not just mine. And the neighbour below me, tells me its not a fan and he said his boiler is of normal sound. Another question, can fan heaters make excessive noise?

DF#2 - If you mean electric fan heaters, yes noises can come from a bent blade hitting an obstruction (risking motor burnup) or from a bad bearing or motor - but if you mean a blower for a hot air heating system there are different sounds. I don't know enough about your heating system to offer accurate opinion. A fan blade ticking because it is hitting an obstruction is also potentially unsafe - a jammed fan can lead to fan motor overheating and possibly a fire hazard.

CC#3 - I have had the problem over a year now and been thinking its the neighbour down below with a fan heater. He should me the fan heater he got the other week working, and that one was quiet. I've got the boiler on now and can hear a slight buzzing noise but sometimes the buzzing sound has sounded like it coming through the bedroom wall. Would that be my boiler as well and can boilers get excessively loud ?

DF#3 - Buzzing can be transmitted from an oil burner pump unit through oil piping that is secured to the building framing - or from other components. If there has been a change in the sound it's more indicative of something deteriorating. It's time for a service call by your heating service co.

CC-#4 - I've just switched off the boiler, and can now hear a buzzing sound sounding like bedroom wall. Is this the pipes cooling down? I've also had a look and not sure whether I can still see a blue flame in the boiler. The tank itself is a Valliant. I am most certainly going to contact the gas people and ask them to come and check my boiler as it was last checked on 10th June, 2010. And on the sheet it says next check within 12 months. Is it more likely to be the boiler than a fan-heater causing the buzzing sound ?

CC#5 - I know its definitely not the boiler now, as when I started hoovering this morning, on came the neighbour's fan heater and its as you described at the start of your email explanation. Yesterday afternoon, he had it blasting out loud and he denies its him but I know full well it is him. I have ordered some sound proofing material for the floor, so hopefully that will reduce the noise from his fan heater. I will let you know if it does. Again, thank you for your very kind explanation. I appreciate. The housing officer won't do anything cos she says its a house-hold item, and have to prove it. I think that's very poor of her and cos of the noise from the fan heater, that's a reason I'm looking at moving from this flat.

I think as long as I live in this place, I'm going to have the problem and it'll be a difficult one to resolve - I've tried everything and think long-term am going to try and move from here rather than suffer and become ill because of it.

Yesterday for two hours, the fan-heater was blasting so loud - I have very high ceilings here but it was so extreme I wouldn't have been surprised if the neighbour above me would have probably heard it. How loud can fan-heaters go ?

CC#6: I write to inform you, I have at long last now got to the bottom of the noise thing. It wasn't X's fan/fan-heater the culprit, nor was it my gas boiler or hot water heater, but of all things I have apparently adopted a condition called 'The Hum', and I have been informed it occurs in both men and women over the age of 50.

I am almost 51 now, and having read up some about 'The Hum' on the Internet, I am now beginning to understand it. Its frustrating but I will just have to cope with it. 'The Hum' can be heard in one place only, like in-doors and that's where its happening with me, at home in my flat - it doesn't happen anywhere else.

It only happened to me slightly once the other day on my way home I heard the idle engine noise, as that's what is described as 'The Hum', and that's the exact sound I here. Its not noisy neighbour after all. I had my gas boiler/water heater checked yesterday and its all working fine. - C.C.



Continue reading at HEALTH, Neurological, Psychologically-Related Noise Complaints or select a topic from the More Reading links or topic ARTICLE INDEX shown below.

Or see NOISE / SOUND DIAGNOSTIC FAQs

Or see NOISE / SOUND DIAGNOSIS & CURE - home, how to locate the source of, identify and correct various building sounds and noises indoors or on occasion, noises from outside that penetrate indoors at annoying levels. While we touch on environmental noise coming from outside of buildings (aircraft noise, highway noise, noisy neighbors) the focus of this article series is on identifying and curing unwanted indoor noise sources in buildings - noise control.

Or see SOUND CONTROL in BUILDINGS - home, detailed articles on reducing unwanted building noise levels through building design, insulation, sound isolation, and noise barriers.


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HEALTH RELATED NOISE COMPLAINTS at InspectApedia.com - online encyclopedia of building & environmental inspection, testing, diagnosis, repair, & problem prevention advice.

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