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A Review of Published Research on Low Frequency Noise and its Effects

  • H G Leventhall
A Review of Published Research on
Low Frequency Noise and its Effects
Report for Defra by Dr Geoff Leventhall
Assisted by Dr Peter Pelmear and Dr Stephen Benton
May 2003
Contract ref:
EPG 1/2/50
Dr Geoff Leventhall
Consultant in Noise, Vibration and Acoustics
150 Craddocks Avenue,
Ashtead, Surrey, KT21 1NL
Tel: 01372 272 682
Fax: 01372 273 406
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
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Published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
1. Preamble............................................................................................................ 4
2. Introduction to the physics of low frequency noise.............................................. 6
3. Decibels and measurements............................................................................ 10
4. The low frequency hearing threshold and loudness.......................................... 12
5. False Perceptions ............................................................................................. 17
6. Development of enhanced susceptibility. .......................................................... 24
7. Objective effects ............................................................................................... 25
8. Annoyance ....................................................................................................... 28
9. Effects of low frequency noise on behaviour, sleep periods, task
performance and social attitudes..................................................................... 38
10. Low frequency noise and stress..................................................................... 41
11. The HUM........................................................................................................ 43
12. Surveys of occurrence and effects................................................................. 46
13 General Review of Effects of Low Frequency Noise on Health...................... 53
14. Complaint procedures. ................................................................................... 61
15. Limits and Criteria .......................................................................................... 64
16 Validation of the Methods................................................................................ 74
17. Further Research ........................................................................................... 77
References............................................................................................................ 79
1. Preamble
Low frequency noise causes extreme distress to a number of people who are
sensitive to its effects. Such sensitivity may be a result of heightened sensory
response within the whole or part of the auditory range or may be acquired.
The noise levels are often low, occurring in the region of the hearing threshold,
where there are considerable individual differences. There is still much to be
done to gain a fuller understanding of low level, low frequency noise, its
effects, assessment and management. Survey papers of low frequency noise
and its occurrence include (Backteman et al., 1983a; Backteman et al., 1983b;
Backteman et al., 1984a; Backteman et al., 1984b; Berglund et al., 1996;
Broner, 1978a; Hood and Leventhall, 1971).
Historically, early work on low frequency noise and its subjective effects was
stimulated by the American space programme, a source of very high levels of
low frequency noise. The launch vehicles produce their maximum noise
energy in the low frequency region. Furthermore, as the vehicle accelerates,
the crew compartment is subjected to boundary layer turbulence noise for
about two minutes after lift-off. Experiments were carried out, in low frequency
noise chambers, on short term subjective tolerance to bands of noise at very
high levels of 140 to 150dB in the frequency range up to 100Hz It was
concluded that the subjects, who were experienced in noise exposure and
wearing ear protection, could tolerate both broadband and discrete frequency
noise in the range 1Hz to 100Hz at sound pressure levels up to 150dB. Later
work suggests that, for 24 hour exposure, levels of 120-130dB are tolerable
below 20Hz. These limits were set to prevent direct physiological damage
(Mohr et al., 1965; von Gierke and Nixon, 1976; Westin, 1975). It is not
suggested that the exposure was pleasant, or even subjectively acceptable, for
anybody except those who might have had a personal interest in the noise.
The levels used in the experiments are considerably higher than the exposure
levels of people in their homes, arising from environmental, traffic, industrial
and other sources.
The early American work was published in the mid 1960's and created no
great sensation, but a few years later infrasound entered upon its
"mythological" phase, echoes of which still occur. Infrasound – the "silent
sound" - was blamed for many misfortunes for which another explanation
had not yet been found (e.g., brain tumours, cot deaths, road accidents). A
selection of some press headlines from the early years is:
The Silent Sound Menaces Drivers - Daily Mirror, 19th October 1969
Does Infrasound Make Drivers Drunk - New Scientist, 16th March 1972
Brain Tumours 'caused by noise' - The Times, 29th September 1973
Crowd Control by Light and Sound - The Guardian, 3rd October 1973
Danger in Unheard Car Sounds - The Observer, 21st April 1974
The Silent Killer All Around Us - Evening News, 25th May 1974
Noise is the Invisible Danger - Care on the Road (ROSPA) August 1974
Blatantly incorrect claims were made in the book 'Supernature' by Lyall
Watson, first published in 1973 as 'A natural history of the supernatural' and
which had large sales as a paperback. For example, it stated that, in an
experiment with infrasonic generators, all the windows were broken within a
half mile of the test site and further, that two infrasonic generators "focused on
a point even five miles away produce a resonance that can knock a building
down as effectively as a major earthquake".
Those who were investigating low frequency noise problems at this time were
often asked "It's dangerous, isn't it?" Public concern over infrasound was one
of the stimuli for a growth in complaints about low frequency noise during the
1970's and 1980's and may still have lingering effects.
However, infrasound has long been a respected area of study in meteorology,
where the frequencies range from as low as one cycle in 1000 seconds up to a
few cycles per second. Large arrays of infrasound microphones detect low
frequencies originating in atmospheric effects, meteorites, supersonic aircraft,
explosions etc. There is also a worldwide system of about 60 infrasound
arrays, which are part of the monitoring for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
It is a big step from the American endurance exposures and the exaggerated
effects of infrasound to the very real low frequency noise difficulties faced in a
number of environmental noise problems, where low frequency noise occurs at
low levels, often in the region of an individual's hearing threshold. The noise,
typically classed as "not a Statutory Nuisance", causes immense suffering to
those who are unfortunate to be sensitive to low frequency noise and who
plead for recognition of their circumstances.
The World Health Organization is one of the bodies which recognizes the
special place of low frequency noise as an environmental problem. Its
publication on Community Noise (Berglund et al., 2000) makes a number of
references to low frequency noise, some of which are as follows:
" It should be noted that low frequency noise, for example, from
ventilation systems can disturb rest and sleep even at low sound levels"
"For noise with a large proportion of low frequency sounds a still lower
guideline (than 30dBA) is recommended"
" When prominent low frequency components are present, noise
measures based on A-weighting are inappropriate"
"Since A-weighting underestimates the sound pressure level of noise with
low frequency components, a better assessment of health effects would
be to use C-weighting"
"It should be noted that a large proportion of low frequency components
in a noise may increase considerably the adverse effects on health"
"The evidence on low frequency noise is sufficiently strong to warrant
immediate concern"
This present study considers some properties of low frequency sounds, their
perception, effects on people and the criteria which have been developed for
assessment of their effects. Proposals are made for further research, to help
to solve the continuing problems of low frequency environmental noise.
2. Introduction to the physics of low
frequency noise
2.1 Noise and sound. Noise and sound are physically the same, differences
arising in their acoustic quality as perceived by listeners. This leads to a
definition of noise as undesired sound, whilst physically both noise and sound
are similar acoustic waves, carried on oscillating particles in the air. Sound is
detected by the ear in a mechanical process, which converts the sound waves
to vibrations within the ear.
Figure 1 is a simplified diagram of the process, which leads to perception and
response. Electrical signals, stimulated by the vibrations in the ear, are
transmitted to the brain, in which perception occurs and the sensation of sound
is developed. Response is the reaction to perception and is very variable
between people, depending on many personal and situational factors,
conditioned by both previous experiences and current expectations.
2.2 Frequency and wavelength. The frequency of a sound is the number of
oscillations which occur per second (Hz), denoted, for example, as 100Hz.
Sound travels in air at about 340ms-1, but this velocity varies slightly with
temperature. Figure 2 represents sound waves generated by the oscillating
strip at the left. As the strip oscillates, it alternately compresses the air, shown
by light bands and expands the air, shown by dark bands.
Figure 1. The response chain.
Figure 2. Sound waves.
Since each compression travels at about 340ms-1, after one second the first
compression is 340m away from the source. If the frequency of oscillation is,
say 10Hz, then there will be 10 compressions in the distance of 340m, which
has been travelled in one second, or 34m between each compression. This
distance is called the wavelength of the sound, leading to the relation:
velocity = wavelength x frequency, written in symbols as
where c is the velocity of sound, λ the wavelength and f the frequency. The
equation gives the relation between frequency and wavelength as in Table 1.
Frequency Hz 1 10 25 50 100 150 200
Wavelength m 340 34 13.6 6.8 3.4 2.27 1.7
Table 1. Frequency and wavelengths of low frequency sound.
In the frequency region 25Hz to 150Hz, wavelengths are of similar size to room
dimensions, which can lead to resonances in rooms, discussed in later
2.3 Noise character and quality. Pleasant sounds convey pleasant associations.
For example, music and birdsong, although early morning seagulls may be
considered as noise, because they are an unwanted sound. Here,
"unwantedness" is determined by the cognitive environment in which each
sound is detected, Character and quality of a noise, combined with our
expectations and situation, are important contributors to our response and are
considered later.
2.4 Low frequency noise and infrasound. The frequency range of infrasound is
normally taken to be below 20Hz and that of audible noise from 20Hz to
20,000Hz. However, frequencies below 20Hz are audible, illustrating that
there is some lack of clarity in the interpretations of infrasonic and audible
noise. Although audibility remains below 20Hz, tonality is lost below 16-18Hz,
thus losing a key element of perception. Low frequency noise spans the
infrasonic and audible ranges and may be considered as the range from about
10Hz to 200Hz. The boundaries are not fixed, but the range from about 10Hz
to 100Hz is of most interest. In later chapters we will not separate infrasound
and low frequency noise, but consider the range from 10Hz to 200Hz as
2.5 Sources. Low frequency noise and infrasound are produced by machinery,
both rotational and reciprocating, all forms of transport and turbulence. For
example, typical sources might be, pumps, compressors, diesel engines,
aircraft, shipping, combustion, air turbulence, wind and fans. Structure borne
noise, originating in vibration, is also of low frequency, as is neighbour noise
heard through a wall, since the wall blocks higher frequencies more than it
blocks lower frequencies (Hood and Leventhall, 1971; Leventhall, 1988).
2.6 Infrasound. There are a number of misconceptions about infrasound, such as
that infrasound is not audible. As will be shown later, frequencies down to a
few hertz are audible at high enough levels. Sometimes, although infrasound is
audible, it is not recognised as a sound and there is uncertainty over the
detection mechanism. Very low frequency infrasound, from one cycle in, say
1000 seconds (0.001Hz) to several cycles a second are produced by
meteorological and similar effects and, having been present during all of our
evolution, are not a hazard to us. Much of what has been written about
infrasound in the press and in popular books is grossly misleading and should
be discounted.
2.6.1 Propagation. The attenuation of sound in air increases with the square of the
frequency of the sound and is very low at low frequencies. Other attenuating
factors, such as absorption by the ground and shielding by barriers, are also
low at low frequencies. The net result is that the very low frequencies of
infrasound are not attenuated during propagation as much as higher
frequencies, although the reduction in intensity due to spreading out from the
source still applies. This is a reduction of 6dB for each doubling of distance.
Wind and temperature also affect the propagation of sound.
2.6.2 Control. Infrasound is difficult to stop or absorb. Attenuation by an
enclosure requires extremely heavy walls, whilst absorption requires a
thickness of absorbing material up to about a quarter wavelength thick, which
could be several metres.
2.6.3 Resonance. Resonance occurs in enclosed, or partially open, spaces. When
the wavelength of a sound is twice the longest dimensions of a room, the
condition for lowest frequency resonance occurs. From c = λ f , if a room is
5m long, the lowest resonance is at 34Hz, which is above the infrasonic range.
However, a room with an open door or window can act as a Helmholtz
resonator. This is the effect which is similar to that obtained when blowing
across the top of an empty bottle. The resonance frequency is lower for greater
volumes, with the result that Helmholtz resonances in the range of about 5Hz
to 10Hz are possible in rooms with a suitable door, window or ventilation
2.7 Low frequency noise. The range from about 10Hz to 200Hz covers low
frequency noise. For comparison, the lowest C note on a full range piano is at
about 32Hz whilst middle C is at about 261Hz. All the low frequency noise
range is audible, although high levels are required to exceed the hearing
thresholds at the lower frequencies.
2.7.1 Propagation. Similar factors influence the propagation of low frequency noise
to those which influence infrasound. However, because of the higher
frequencies, air and other attenuations are greater for low frequency noise than
for infrasound and more is known about them. Typical air attenuations at 200C
and 70% relative humidity are:
63Hz - 0.1dB/km
125Hz - 0.35dB/km
250Hz - 1.1dB/km
which shows very low attenuation at 63Hz.
In addition to these there is reduction of 6dB per doubling of distance due to
spreading out of the wave and any reduction which might occur due to
absorption over the ground or by shielding. It is seen that air attenuations are a
small contributor to losses at low frequencies but, since attenuation increase
rapidly as frequency rises, air attenuation can be a main contributor at much
higher frequencies in the kilohertz range. As a result, noise which has travelled
over long distances is normally biased towards the low frequencies.
2.7.2 Control. Low frequency noise and infrasound are steps along the same
physical process of wave propagation, so that similar considerations apply to
their control, although the shorter wavelengths of low frequency noise make
control easier. Thus, a massive single partition, or a complex multiple partition,
is needed to stop low frequency noise, with results which improve as the
frequency increases. But most walls in buildings are deficient in the low
frequency region, so that noise transmission between rooms, and from outside
to inside, is a problem. Absorption of low frequency noise requires thick
material, such that most sound absorbing linings, typically a few centimetre
thick, are ineffective at the low frequencies.
2.7.3 Resonance effects. Resonances in a normal sized domestic room occur in
the low frequency region. For example, a room of dimensions 4m by 5m by
2.5m has low frequency resonances from 34 Hz upwards. Resonances
increase the sound level in parts of the room whilst decreasing it in others.
Figure 3 illustrates the standing wave of a lowest room resonance, in which
the room dimension is one half wavelength of the sound. The level is highest
at the end walls and lowest in the centre of the room. It is often possible to
detect the differences in level, at different room locations, within a room which
has been driven into resonance by low frequency noise.
Half wavelength
ure 3. Lowest room resonance.
3. Decibels and measurements
3.1 Noise Levels – the 'decibel'
3.1.1 Definition: The decibel is the logarithm of the ratio between two values of
some characteristic quantity such as power, pressure or intensity, with a
multiplying constant to give convenient numerical factors. Logarithms are
useful for compressing a wide range of quantities into a smaller range. For
1010 = 1
10100 = 2
101000 = 3
and the ratio of 1000:10 is compressed into a ratio of 3:1.
This approach is advantageous for handling sound levels, where the ratio of
the highest to the lowest sound which we are likely to encounter can be as high
as 1,000,000:1. A useful development, many years ago, was to take the ratios
with respect to the quietest sound we can hear. This is the threshold of
hearing at about 1000Hz, which is taken as 20µPa (2x10-5Pa) of pressure for
the average person. When the word “level” is added to the word that describes
a physical quantity, decibels are implied. Thus, "sound level" is a decibel
quantity. When the sound pressure is doubled, the sound pressure level
increases by 6dB.
3.2 Measurements
3.2.1 Weighting networks. The majority of noise measurements are made using
sound level meters (IEC:60651, 2001), which give numerical levels as a
representation of the noise. For environmental noise it is normal to use the
sound level meter A-weighting, which gradually reduces the significance of
frequencies below 1000Hz, until at 10Hz the attenuation is 70dB. The C-
weighting is flat to within 1dB down to about 50Hz and then drops by 3dB at
31.5Hz and 14dB at 10Hz. Figure 4 shows the A and C weighting curves.
The G weighting, (ISO7196, 1995), specifically designed for infrasound, falls off
rapidly above 20Hz, whilst below 20Hz it follows assumed hearing contours with
a slope of 12dB per octave down to 2Hz. This slope is intended to give a
subjective assessment to noise in the infrasonic range. A G-weighted level of 95
- 100dBG is close to the perception level. G-weighted levels below 85-90dBG
are not normally significant for human perception. However, too much reliance
on the G-weighting, which is of limited application, may divert attention from
problems at higher frequencies, say, in the 30Hz to 80Hz range.
Figure 5 shows the G-weighting curve. There is a Linear Weighting, also
known as Z-weighting, which has a flat frequency response from 10Hz to
20kHz. More detail of the noise, in particular the presence of tones, can be
found from a third octave or narrow band analysis.
3.2.2 Averaging. Sound level meters give a numerical representation of the noise.
However, this is obtained by averaging over a period of time that, for
fluctuating noises, is generally longer than the period of the fluctuations,
leading to a loss of information on the fluctuations. The widespread use of the
equivalent level discards important information on the quality of the noise, its
spectral properties and corresponding perceived sound character.
Figure 5. G-weighting for infrasound.
Figure 4. Sound level meter weighting curves – A and C.
4. The low frequency hearing threshold and
4.1 Average thresholds. The aim of studies on the low frequency threshold has
been to determine the lowest levels which are audible to an average person,
often a young person, with normal hearing. Thus, the threshold is a “quasi-
objective” measurement in the sense that it is free from emotional responses.
Threshold studies have been carried out on relatively small groups, typically
about 10 to 20 subjects, so that differences between experimenters are to be
expected. However, the different studies follow the same trend, and the
threshold region at low frequencies is now well established. For example,
(Corso, 1958; Lydolf and Møller, 1997a; Lydolf and Møller, 1997b; Moller and
Andresen, 1984; Møller and Andresen, 1984; Watanabe and Møller, 1990a;
Watanabe and Møller, 1990b; Whittle et al., 1972; Yeowart, 1976; Yeowart and
Evans, 1974) have all carried out careful studies and give references to earlier
work. The frequency ranges covered and method of exposure are as follows.
Corso 5Hz to 200Hz Monaural headphone
Whittle et al 3.15Hz to 50Hz Pressure chamber
Yeowart and Evans 1.5Hz to 100Hz Monaural headphone
5Hz to 100Hz Binaural headphone
2Hz to 20Hz Pressure chamber
Møller and Andresen 2Hz to 50Hz Pressure chamber
Watanabe and Møller (a) 25Hz to 1kHz Free Field
Watanabe and Møller (b) 4Hz to 125Hz Pressure chamber
Lydolf and Møller 20Hz to 1kHz Pressure chamber/free field
(Yeowart 1976 is a review of work up to that date)
The different measurement methods – monaural/binaural headphones,
pressure chamber, free field – potentially produce different results. For
example, binaural listening is 3dB more sensitive than monaural listening - the
“binaural advantage”. An individual's sensitivity and measured hearing
threshold will also be influenced by the method of presentation of the sounds.
Free field levels are often taken in the absence of the subject, whilst pressure
chamber measurements are taken in the presence of the subject. However
Watanabe and Møller (1990b) found no significant difference between their two
measurements in the frequency range of overlap.
Thresholds above 20Hz are standardised by ISO for otologically normal
persons within the age range from 18 to 30 years inclusive (ISO226, 1987).
Early studies of the low frequency threshold showed discrepancies between
low frequency measurements and ISO 226 at frequencies above 20Hz, where
the measurements overlapped. Later measurements have partially resolved
these, showing that where the measurements are made in the same
laboratory, there is closer agreement in the overlap region between very low
frequency pressure chamber measurements and the free field measurements
above 20Hz (Lydolf and Møller, 1997a; Watanabe and Møller, 1990b).
However, ISO 226 is itself under review and the threshold has been
standardised separately for audiometric equipment (ISO 398 - 7, 1996). A
German Standard for environmental low frequency noise (DIN:4560, 1997)
circumvents the difference by extrapolating the threshold of ISO 226 from
20Hz, the lowest standardised frequency, by 8dB rise per third octave down to
8Hz. This gives thresholds which are lower than most measured ones in the
infrasonic region.
4.1.1 Current threshold values. The thresholds found by Watanabe and Møller
(1990b) are shown in Figure 6, which also includes the limit of 85dBG up to
20Hz and 20dBA in the range 10-160Hz. The threshold measurements from
20Hz to 125Hz are very close to the ISO 389-7 threshold (ISO389-7, 1996).
Figure 6 gives the threshold at 4Hz as about 107dB, at 10Hz it is 97dB, at
20Hz it is 79dB and at 50Hz it is 46dB. Note that, at about 15Hz, there is a
change in threshold slope from approximately 20dB/octave at higher
frequencies to 12dB/octave at lower frequencies. This is a consistent finding by
different experimenters, occurring within the range 15Hz to 20Hz, depending
on which frequencies have been used in the measurements. It has not been
fully explained, but is thought to be due to a change in the aural detection
process, occurring in the frequency region at which tonality of the auditory
sensation is lost.
Figure 6. Threshold levels after Watanabe and Møller (1990b).
The 50% and 10% hearing thresholds for an otologically unselected 50 – 60
year old age group has been compared with that for otologically selected
young adults. (van den Berg and Passchier-Vermeer, 1999a). The older
population is typically 6 – 7dB less sensitive than the younger one, whilst the
hearing sensitivity which is exceeded by 10% of the population is, typically, 10-
12dB below the average, 50% level. It was also estimated that the 5% hearing
level was 2dB below the 10% hearing level.
4.2 Individual thresholds. The threshold levels described above are averaged
over groups of subjects. The threshold of an individual may differ from the
average. Investigations at higher frequencies have shown that an individual
threshold exhibits a “microstructure” in which there are fluctuations in
sensitivity of up to 12dB at specific tones. (Cohen, 1982).
Further investigations of this effect were made at both low and high
frequencies (Benton, 1984; Frost, 1980; Frost, 1987). For example, Frost
(1987) measured thresholds at 5Hz intervals over the range 20Hz to 120Hz
with results such as in Figure 7, which compares two subjects, one of whom is
about 15dB more sensitive than the other at 40Hz. Both subjects had similar
audiograms at 250, 500 and 1000Hz.
Figure 7. Individual thresholds showing regions of enhanced sensitivity.
Yamada and colleagues (Yamada, 1980) reported male and female thresholds
separately, measured in a pressure chamber at third octave frequencies from
8Hz to 63Hz. For his subjects, women were about 3dB more sensitive than
men except at the lowest two frequencies, 8Hz and 10Hz. It was also found
that individual differences are large, one male subject having a threshold which
was 15dB more sensitive than the average.
It is clear that the audiogram is not a smooth curve and that there are
pronounced individual differences. Low frequency audiograms of complainants
have shown that some hum complainants have low frequency hearing which is
more sensitive than the average threshold, whilst others are less sensitive
(Walford, 1978; Walford, 1983), as would be expected in any population of
subjects. Thus, complainants do not necessarily have enhanced hearing acuity
at low frequencies.
4.3 Loudness at low frequencies. Loudness is also a “quasi-objective”
measurement, although, as with the threshold, its determination depends on
the subject’s responses. Loudness is measured against the loudness of a tone
at 1000Hz. Experimentally, the subject adjusts the level of the sound under
investigation until it sounds equally loud to the 1000Hz reference tone. This is
the way in which the equal loudness contours of ISO 226:1987, shown in
Figure 8 were developed. It is also possible to use an intermediate frequency,
F2, first comparing F2 with the 1000Hz reference and then the test tone, F3,
with F2, in order to compare F3 with 1000Hz. For example, 50Hz might be
compared directly with 1000Hz, but lower frequencies compared directly with
50Hz and indirectly with 1000Hz. The unit of loudness is the "phon", which is
the level of a 1000Hz tone that has the same loudness as the test tone when
the tones are presented as plane waves, with the subject facing the direction of
the waves.
Figure 8. Equal loudness contours (ISO 226).
Some threshold investigations at low frequencies have also included
measurement of equal loudness contours (Lydolf and Møller, 1997a;
Watanabe and Møller, 1990a; Whittle et al., 1972; Yeowart, 1976). Figure 8 ,
showing the equal loudness contours above 20Hz, illustrates the trend that, as
the frequency reduces, the contours come closer together. Thus, in Figure 8,
the 80 phon range of loudness at 1000Hz, from 10dB to 90dB, spanning 80dB,
is compressed into 40dB at 20Hz. The mid-frequency rule of thumb that a
10dB increase in level represents a doubling of loudness, fails at low
frequencies. At 20Hz a doubling of loudness occurs for a level change about
5dB, and requires a smaller change at lower frequencies.
The main loudness level measurements at very low frequencies have been by
(Moller and Andresen, 1984; Møller and Andresen, 1984; Whittle et al., 1972).
Figure 9, from Møller and Andresen, compares the results. Møller and
Andresen made measurements at octave frequencies from 2Hz up to 63Hz.
Whittle's measurement frequencies were at octaves between 3.15Hz and
25Hz, followed by third octave frequencies to 50Hz. There is good agreement
over the main range with the continuing tendency for the contours to become
closer as the frequency reduces. The more rapid growth in loudness at low
frequencies is an important factor in its subjective effects.
Figure 9. Loudness measurements.
Møller and Andresen
5. False Perceptions
There is always low frequency noise present in an ambient "quiet" background.
Origins are often from transportation or industrial sources, which are too far
away to be clearly identified. However, depending on the type of location,
typical levels might rise rapidly below 50Hz and reach 40-50dB at frequencies
below 20Hz. An investigator may conclude that this rise in low frequency levels
is the source of the complaint, neglecting that the threshold at 20Hz is higher
than 70dB. As a general rule, broadband noise which is more than 20dB below
the average threshold is unlikely to be a problem, as it lies below the threshold
of the most sensitive persons.
The instances when a noise is heard by a complainant, but cannot be
measured or detected by instruments at significant levels, make it necessary to
consider the possibility that a mechanism other than an airborne sound is
responsible, leading to a false perception of noise. Potential origins of false
perceptions include tinnitus, electromagnetic waves, synaesthesia, hypnagogic
effects and the "cognitive itch".
5.1 Tinnitus. Tinnitus has often been used as the "fall back" explanation, when it
has not been possible to measure a noise. In addition to tinnitus arising in the
hearing mechanism, there are low frequency fluctuations within the body,
mainly associated with blood flow, which are known to produce audible effects.
In an investigation which included both hum sufferers and tinnitus sufferers,
Walford (1983) attempted to separate the responses of the two groups. Both
experimental groups were asked to match the frequencies of their sensations,
in both level and rate of throb. This was done by adjusting the frequency, throb
rate and amplitude of an oscillator. There was overlap between the two groups,
with matched frequencies ranging from 15Hz to 196Hz and throb rates from
zero to over 5 per second. There was a clustering of frequencies around 40Hz
with throb rates of 1 – 2 per second. The overlap in sensations emphasises the
difficulties of separating tinnitus patients from those who hear an external
noise. Walford attempted the separation by an earmuff test. First the
effectiveness of the earmuffs was tested against a matched tone from an
oscillator, in order to demonstrate their attenuation at that frequency. If the
earmuffs, in the presence of the problem noise, then do not reduce this noise,
it is likely to be tinnitus. If they are effective against the noise, there is likely to
be an external source.
An important element of this work was when the low frequency noise sensitives
were matching, from memory, the levels at which they hear the noise in their
homes. The matching sounds were all above average threshold levels, in many
cases by 20dB to 40dB. This means that these sounds would have been
audible to most listeners, although they were not heard by investigators and
others. Several points come from this:
If the matching levels were correct, the effects were likely to be tinnitus.
The subjects may have a very imperfect memory of the sounds they hear
in their homes.
The subjects were matching how they felt about the noise, rather than
what they heard, determined by long-term antagonistic conditioning.
5.2 Electromagnetic waves. It has been known for some time that
electromagnetic waves may produce auditory sensations in persons close to a
transmitter although, as shown by calculations later in this section, in most
practical exposures the levels of electromagnetic radiation are considerably
below those where auditory sensations have been observed.
5.2.1 Review. An early paper (Frey, 1962) showed that good high frequency hearing
in the listener was necessary for perception. Frey also listed other effects,
depending on the transmitter parameters. These effects included buffeting of
the head, dizziness or nausea and pins-and-needles sensations. However, his
main work was on hearing sensations produced by pulsed waves in the range
425MHz to 3000MHz. He found that a peak electrical field strength of around
15V/cm (1500V/m) was the threshold value for perception when using pulse
duty cycles of around 0.001 to 0.01. Very low duty cycles (0.0004) required
higher peak fields. The work was carried out in a laboratory area of 70-90dB
acoustic background noise and Frey considered that thresholds would be lower
in quieter surroundings.
A recent review gives a clear survey of existing material (Elder and Chou, 2003
(submitted for publication)) and also available under the title of the paper on
Auditory perception, which follows from a rapid transient heating of about 10-6
0C, depends on the energy in a single pulse and not on the average power
density, typical sensations being click, buzz, hiss, knock or chirp. The effective
stimulation range is 200MHz to 10,000MHz and the ability to hear the effects of
radio frequencies in this range depends on good high frequency acoustic
hearing, in the kilohertz range. Conversion starts outside the cochlea, by
absorption of RF energy in tissues in the head, leading to rapid thermal
expansion. The resulting pulse feeds by bone conduction to the cochlea,
which is very sensitive. (Note that the displacement of the eardrum at the level
of ordinary conversation is about 10 –10 m, which is sufficient to stimulate the
cochlea to sense a sound of moderate level (Stephens and Bate, 1966)).
Elder and Chou give examples of values of RF stimulation to produce distinct
clicks such as:
Frequency, 3000MHz: 5
s pulse widths: repetition rate 0.5s-1 :
peak power density 2.5W/cm2.
In experiments on exposure of humans to radar waves, the RF induced sounds
disappeared when an aluminium fly screen was placed between the subject
and the radar. It was also found that a small metal screen, about 50mm x
50mm, placed over the temporal lobe of the brain, completely stopped the
sound. Additional information and international standards are given in a survey
of effects of radio wave exposure (Firstenberg, 2001).
5.2.2 EM waves and sensitivity to LF noise. The audible sensations produced by
electromagnetic waves do not closely match the sounds reported by low
frequency noise sensitives. As good high frequency hearing is required, the
older complainants may not be able to perceive the sounds. However, the
buffeting of the head, dizziness or nausea and pins-and needles sensations
noted by Frey do match some complainants. These effects do not appear to
have been followed up and are not referred to in the comprehensive review by
Elder and Chou. It is possible that the effects will manifest only at very high
exposure levels, which requires a subject to be close to a transmitter.
It is necessary to relate the electromagnetic levels used in the hearing
experiments with those to which people are normally exposed. Simple
predictions can be made of energy density and field strength at distances from
a transmitter. For example,
gives the power density (power received per unit area) at a distance d from a
transmitter of power Pt as
= W/m2
The field strength is
= volts/m
Then, say, at a distance of 10m from a transmitter of power 100W,
Pr = 0.08 W/m2 = 8x10-6 W/cm2
E = 5.5 V/m = 0.055 V/cm
These values are considerably below the levels of 15V/cm and 2.5W/cm2
quoted above as typical levels for an effect.
Pulsed radars generate very high peak powers, say, 1MW. (WHO, 1999) The
radiation is very directional and falls off rapidly at the side of the main beam.
For a 1MW peak power, at a distance of 100m, the formula for Pr above gives
Pr = 8W/m2. However, this must be multiplied to allow for the directionality of
the aerial, which might typically lead to a power gain on the axis of the main
beam of 30dB (1000 times), resulting in 8000W/m2, or 0.8W/cm2. This is lower
than the levels given by Elder and Chou for the auditory effect. Additionally, it
is unlikely that people will be exposed to the main beam. The experimental
work on audibility of RF pulses has been carried out with subjects close to the
RF sources and consequently exposed to higher levels than would be received
by the public at normal source distances.
5.2.3 Growth of EM waves. The growth of EM waves is one of the major
environmental changes over the past 100 years, particularly in the last 50
years. Frequencies have been extended at both low and high ends of the
spectrum. For example, Extremely Low Frequencies (ELF) start at about 3Hz
and extend to a few kilohertz, such that electromagnetic frequencies overlap
with audio frequencies. ELF is used for communication with submerged
submarines, since the low frequencies penetrate deep into water. The
transmission frequency is 76Hz, modulated between 72Hz and 80Hz. It is not
known whether work has been carried out to detect auditory effects from ELF.
Coincidentally, the transmission commenced in the 1960's, which is a start time
for growth in complaints of low frequency noise, but absorption of energy by
body tissues is very low at low frequencies.
5.2.4 Power lines. Much work has been carried out on biological effects of power
lines which, at 50Hz or 60Hz, are similar frequency to the ELF transmissions.
A detailed explanation of the effects of power line radiations does not mention
auditory effects.(National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and
National Institute of Health (Australia), 2002). This may be because the audible
sensations produced by electromagnetic waves depend on fluctuation in the
stimulus wave, typically as short pulses. Steady waves from power lines, if they
have an effect, will produce a steady change in the head, which will not result
in audible signals. A requirement for auditory sensations induced by the
thermal effect is that the transient electromagnetic energy is absorbed in the
tissues of the head. This is a frequency dependent effect, occurring mostly
between about 200MHz and 10,000MHz (Elder and Chou 2003). Absorption is
very low at ELF.
5.2.5 Conclusions. A conclusion is that, although auditory signals are produced by
pulsed electromagnetic waves, there is, as yet, no evidence to show that the
effects are similar to those experienced by people who are sensitive to low
frequency noise. There is a gap in knowledge, which might be clarified if the
non-auditory effects referred to by Frey (1962), can be replicated at typical
environmental exposure levels of electromagnetic waves. However, the weight
of evidence is against EM waves being a source of the types of effects
experienced by low frequency noise complainants.
5.3 Synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is a "cross talk" effect in the brain in which one
sensory pathway links across to another, resulting in two outputs from one
input. ((Baron-Cohen and Harrison, 1997; Grossenbacher, 1997; Rich and
Mattingley, 2002). This is indicated in Figure.10. The auditory input leads to
both auditory and visual perceptions. Another model requires feedback from a
multimodal nexus which receives inputs from multiple sense modalities, thus
acting as a link between them.
The question to be addressed is: In the cases where complaints persist, but
noise cannot be measured, could the complainants have a form of
synaesthesia in which a sensory input of another modality leads to an auditory
The commonest form of synaesthesia is the linking of colours to printed letters
and numbers. The letters may appear to be coloured even though they are
printed as black. Other effects are to "see" music in colours. It is estimated that
about 1 in 2500 people are synaesthetes, of whom more are women than men
and a high proportion are left-handed.
5.3.1 Auditory effects. Associate Professor Sean Day of Miami University, also
President of the American Synaesthesia Association, gives statistics based on
a sample size of 572, some of whom have more than one type of
synaesthesia. See Sean Day's personal web page The commonest occurrence is black
printed letters appearing as coloured (68.8%), but there is a small number,
about 1%, who hear sound when the stimulus is from smell, taste or touch.
Baron-Cohen (Baron-Cohen, 1996) describes a synaesthete who links colours
to sounds and also has the reverse experience, hearing sounds when seeing
colours. The effect is described as leading to "massive interference, stress,
dizziness, a feeling of information overload and a need to avoid those
situations which are either too noisy or too colourful".
It is difficult to assert that synaesthesia is an explanation of some of the
unsolvable low frequency noise problems. Synaesthesia is often a lifelong
condition, whilst many low frequency noise complaints have a sudden onset.
However, synaesthesia can be acquired through seizures or drug use, neuron
degeneration and damage to the brain or spinal cord. Thus, synaesthesia is a
candidate explanation where noise cannot be measured, but not a very strong
Internal Cross link
Auditory perception Visual linked effect
ut No visual stimulus
Figure 10. Illustrating synaesthesia, a sound causing a visual effect.
5.4 Reception through the skin. The skin contains multiple sensors which
respond to touch, pressure, temperature, pain etc. The Merkel cell, Meissners
corpuscles and Pancinian corpuscles respond to vibration as indicated in
Figure 11, reproduced from Jones (Jones, undated). There is the question: are
these more or less sensitive receivers than the ear at very low frequencies?
The high displacement thresholds shown in Figure 11 indicate that, to a
normally hearing person, perception through the ear will take precedence. This
is borne out by experiments with normally hearing and profoundly deaf persons
(Yamada et al., 1983). The threshold of sensation of the deaf subjects was 40-
50dB above the hearing threshold of those with normal hearing up to 63Hz
and greater at higher frequencies. For example about 100dB greater at 1kHz,
at which level perception was by the subject's residual hearing. Deaf subjects
felt sensations mainly in the chest.
5.5 Hypnagogic and hypnopompic experiences. These terms describe the
unusual experiences which might occur when a person is falling asleep
(hypnagogic) or waking up (hypnopompic). They are sometimes associated
with sleep paralysis, when it is not possible to move, although aware of the
surroundings. In addition to immobility, there may also be a sensed presence,
pressure on the body, floating sensations, sounds, a visible form and fear. The
effects, which are associated with the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stage,
have been investigated amongst a large group of undergraduates (Cheyne et
al., 1999). The frequency of occurrences amongst a sample of 870 students is
shown in Table 2. About 12% of the sample experience sounds. Cheyne gives
a description of the auditory effects on
Figure 11. Threshold sensitivity of receptors in the skin.
Experience Frequency Proportion
2 – 5 times
5 times
Hallucinoid experiences
Sensed presence
Body pressure
Visible form
Table 2. Frequencies and proportions of individuals experiencing sleep
paralysis and associated hallucinoid experiences. (Cheyne et al 1999).
The auditory effects are described as buzzing, grinding, humming, ringing,
roaring, rushing, screeching, squeaking, vibrating, whirring, and whistling.
Bodily sensations of tingling, numbness or vibrations sometimes accompany
the sounds. There is a parallel between these descriptors and complainants of
low frequency noises, especially for those whose experience is worse when
trying to sleep.
It is not suggested that hypnagogic effects are the explanation for low
frequency noise disturbance, but it is possible that they could explain some of
the extreme effects which complainants feel in bed and which are attributed to
the complaint noise.
5.6 The "cognitive itch". It has been suggested by Sargent (Sargent, 1996) that
subjects could become sensitive to a noise, possibly developing an ongoing
"memory" of it. We have all experienced certain "catchy" tunes repeating in the
head – the "cognitive itch" (Kellaris, 2001). The main characteristics of such
tunes are repetition, simplicity and incongruity, all of which hold the attention.
In particular, repetition causes an automatic pattern echo in the brain. The
"cognitive itch" metaphor arises since, in the same way that one scratches an
itch, the cognitive itch demands attention through internal repetition of its
sounds. It is related to endomusia, a syndrome in which melodies are recalled
in the head, possibly to an obsessive extent .
A similar effect to the cognitive itch may be relevant to some of the low
frequency noise problems, in which exposure has developed a memory of the
6. Development of enhanced susceptibility
It is known that different regions of the brain are responsible for different
functions. The brain also possesses "plasticity", in the sense that parts within
the same region may change their function. (Schnupp and Kacelnick, 2002).
For example, extensive training in a frequency discrimination task leads to
improved discrimination ability and an expansion of the cortical area
responsive to the frequencies used during training. Schnupp and Kacelnick
quote supporting work on animals as follows:
Guinea pigs, trained to associate presentation of a particular pure tone
with an unpleasant, but mild, electric shock to the paw, learned to avoid
the shock by withdrawing their paw when presented with the tone.
Subsequent electro -physiological examination indicated that neurons,
originally tuned to frequencies on either side of the conditioning frequency,
had shifted their tuning curves towards that frequency. The shift of
frequency tuning meant that more cells in the cortex were available to
signal the presence of the conditioned stimulus and that this signal is
sensed clearly and unambiguously.
Owl monkeys, trained through a reward and denial regime to discriminate
a target frequency from different frequencies, were shown to have a shift
in neural tuning curves and a sharpening of frequency tuning for the target.
In humans, there is considerable plasticity in the brain during its early
development, requiring appropriate stimuli for proper growth. Plastic adaptation
is slower in the adult brain. Two examples of plastic adaptation are:
London taxi drivers have been shown, through magnetic resonance
imaging, to have an enlarged posterior hippocampus compared with
control subjects who did not drive taxis.(Maguire et al., 2000). Taxi driver's
anterior hippocampal regions were, however, smaller than controls.
Posterior hippocampal volume correlated positively with time spent as a
taxi driver, whilst anterior hippocampal volume correlated negatively. The
conclusion is that, in order to learn the thousands of routes required for
their work, that part of the brain associated with spatial navigation, the
posterior hippocampus, enlarged at the expense of neighbouring regions.
There has been a similar finding for skilled musicians (Pantev et al., 1998).
Cortical reorganisation was greater the younger the age at which learning
The significance of these findings for low frequency noise sufferers is:
There is clear evidence that the brain is able to adapt to stimuli.
If sufferers spend a great deal of time listening to, and listening for, their
particular noise, it is possible that they may develop enhanced
susceptibility to this noise.
Enhanced susceptibility is therefore a potential factor in low frequency
noise problems.
7. Objective effects
7.1 Hearing loss. High levels of A-weighted noise lead to damage to hearing. Do
high levels of low frequency noise, whose measured levels would be
depressed on an A-weighted measurement, have similar effects? This was one
of the early investigations in the American Space Programme (Mohr et al.,
1965). Mohr exposed subjects to single tones and narrow bands of noise in the
range 10-20Hz, at levels of 150-154dB for two minutes. There was no change
in hearing sensitivity as reported by the subjects and no measured temporary
threshold shift (TTS) at about one hour after exposure. In other work (Jerger et
al., 1966), subjects were exposed for 3 minutes to 7-12Hz at levels 119-144dB.
TTS of 20-25dB was found at high frequencies (3kHz to 6kHz), but recovery
was complete in a few hours. Nixon (Nixon, 1973) used a piston-phone
coupled to the subject's ear via an earmuff to produce levels of 135dB at 18Hz.
Six five minute exposures were used with one to two minute rest periods
between. TTS was observed in one third of the subjects used, but this
recovered after about half an hour. Later work (Burdick et al., 1978) indicated
that there may be some permanent threshold shift (PTS) for long term high
level exposure. In one experiment, chinchilla were exposed for three days to
octave band noise at, 100dB, 110dB and 120dB centred on 63Hz. The highest
level led to PTS of up to 40dB at 2kHz in the chinchilla. When human subjects
were exposed to the same low frequency noise at 110dB and 120dB for four
hours, a TTS of about 15dB resulted, extending from low frequencies up to
2kHz. The frequency used by Burdick et al is higher than in the other
experiments and might be expected to have a greater effect. There is an
indication that long-term exposure to very high levels may cause permanent
hearing loss.
Aural pain is produced by exposure to high levels of noise, occurring when the
displacement of the middle ear system exceeds its normal limits. Thresholds of
pain are given as rising from about 140dB at 30Hz to 165dB at 2Hz (von
Gierke and Nixon, 1976). However, there may be people with middle ear
problems whose pain threshold is lower than this.
It appears that low frequency noise will produce TTS in some subjects after
short exposure, but that the recovery is rapid and complete. Work has not been
carried out on the effects of very long exposures to high levels of low frequency
noise. The levels experienced in exposure to environmental low frequency
noise are considerably lower than the levels used in the hearing loss
experiments described above.
7.2 Body Vibrations. It is possible that body organs resonate within the low
frequency range. Complainants of low frequency noise sometimes report a
feeling of vibrations through their body.
7.2.1 Whole body exposure. Work has been carried out on body vibrations
produced by whole body exposure to low frequency noise.(Brown, 1976;
Kyriakides, 1974; Leventhall et al., 1977; Takahashi et al., 2002; Takahashi
and Maeda, 2002). The vibratory response of the body to acoustic stimulation
is different from its response to mechanical vibration through the feet or seat.
Low frequency acoustic stimulation acts over the whole body surface. The
work by Brown, Kyriakides and Leventhall was carried out in a small chamber,
in which it was possible to maintain a constant excitation level of noise over the
frequency range from 3Hz to 100Hz at up to 107dB. Resonance was detected
by an accelerometer mounted on a small plate on an elastic belt, which held
the accelerometer in contact with the body. For chest resonance
measurements, the accelerometer was positioned over the sternum. Other
measurement sites were at the front of the stomach and on the shin muscles.
The output of the accelerometer was recorded during a frequency sweep from
3Hz to 100Hz at 107dB. The most prominent effect was a chest resonance,
occurring in the range from about 30Hz to 80Hz, depending on stature and
gender, but mostly near the centre region of this range. The vibration was
clearly felt by the subjects and modulated their voices, producing a croaky
effect. Repeating the measurements with the subjects breathing a helium-
oxygen mixture resulted in the same chest resonance frequency, although
voices acquired the typical higher pitch of helium speech. This isolates the
resonance to a structural source, the rib cage, rather than within body cavities,
such as the lungs. A chest resonance is shown in Figure 12 for a male subject
and excitation at 107dB. The maximum acceleration is 0.05g. There were
smaller effects at other body locations.
ure 12. Exam
le of male chest vibration at 107dB
Takahashi and colleagues used a chamber which, because of its size, was
limited to a maximum frequency of 50Hz, above which the spatial uniformity of
the sound field deteriorated. Measurements were made using single
frequencies (20, 25, 31.5, 40 and 50Hz) at levels of 100, 105 and 110dB at the
following locations: the forehead, the right and left anterior chest and the right
and left anterior abdomen. Further work used white noise and complex noise
(combined 31.5Hz and 50Hz ) excitation. The general trend was for vibration
levels to increase as the frequency increased, but resonance was not shown,
due to the limited frequency range of the measurements. The results of the
complex tone measurements led to the conclusion that the human body acts
as a mechanically linear system in response to airborne excitation.
7.2.2 Conclusions. The work on body vibrations has a limited significance for
people in their daily life. Vibrations are sometimes experienced when, as a
pedestrian, a bus or lorry passes by, since these vehicles often emit noise at
around 60Hz. Body vibrations are a pleasurable effect at discos and rock
concerts, as shown by the attendees who cluster near the bass loudspeakers.
Typical levels of infrasound and low frequency noise, as experienced in
homes, are not high enough to cause significant body vibrations, since, as
shown in Figure 12. the resonant gain for the chest vibrations was about 25dB
and inherent body vibrations will mask excitations resulting from levels of noise
below 70-80dB.
8. Annoyance
8.1 The meaning of annoyance. Annoyance has roots in a complex of responses,
which are moderated by personal and social characteristics of the listeners.
(Belojevic and Jokovljevic, 2001; Benton and Leventhall, 1982; Fields, 1993;
Grime, 2000; Guski, 1999; Guski et al., 1999; Kalveram, 2000; Kalveram et al.,
1999; Stallen, 1999).
For example, Guski (1999) proposes that noise annoyance is partly due to
acoustic factors and partly due to personal and social moderating variables,
which are shown in Table 3. Noise annoyance in the home is considered as a
long-term negative evaluation of living conditions, dependent on past
disturbances and current attitudes and expectations. Annoyance brings
feelings of disturbance, aggravation, dissatisfaction, concern, bother,
displeasure, harassment, irritation, nuisance, vexation, exasperation,
discomfort, uneasiness, distress, hate etc, some of which combine to produce
the adverse reaction.
Table 3. Noise Annoyance Moderators.
Figure 13, modified from Guski (1999) in order to emphasise the central nature
of the personal factors, summarises the interactions. The interpretation of
Figure 13 is as follows. The noise load causes activity interference (e.g. to
communication, recreation, sleep), together with vegetative reactions (e.g.
blood pressure changes, defensive reactions). Activity interference develops
into annoyance and disturbance. Prolonged vegetative reactions may lead to
effects on health. Personal factors feed into the outer boxes of Figure 13,
moderating the complainant's complex of responses. The social factors
moderate how the complainant interacts with external authorities in attempting
to deal with the annoyance. Social factors may also interact with health effects,
as some social classes may more readily seek medical assistance. The
personal and social moderating factors are so variable that Grime (2000)
questions the feasibility of a national noise policy.
Personal Moderators Social Moderators
Sensitivity to noise Evaluation of the source
Anxiety about the source Suspicion of source controllers
Personal evaluation of the source History of noise exposure
Coping capacity with respect to noise Expectations
8.1.2 Annoyance and the "meaning" of noise. Kalveram (2000) points out that
much psychoacoustical noise research has limitations, because it is based
upon the correlation between annoyance ratings and physical measurements
of sound energy, with subsequent correlation of annoyance and sound level.
But equivalent level, A-weighted or linear, is only a part of the total process.
Noise level and noise dose approaches neglect the "meaning" of a noise and
are contrary to the interactive model in Figure 13. Kalveram proposes an
"ecological" approach to noise research, which emphasises the psychological
functions of sounds. Annoyance originates from acoustical signals which are
not compatible with, or which disturb, these psychological functions. In
particular, disturbance of current activities is a primary effect of noise
exposure. Kalveram has extended his approach to include "psycho-biological"
effects. Annoyance conveys a "possible loss of fitness" (PLOF), which
Kalveram links to the message that an individual's Darwinian fitness will
decrease if they stay in that situation. Darwinian fitness, in this context, refers
to the ability to generate behaviour patterns which permit coping with changes
in the environment. For example, to either eliminate a threat or to reduce it to
a level which is within the individual's handling capacity. Darwinian fitness may
clearly be under threat from noise, to an extent depending on personal factors.
A few persons are known to have modified their responses to low frequency
noise, thereby removing it from the category of a threat and challenge.
with Activity
Noise Load
Long Term
Health Effects
Figure 13. Factors moderating noise annoyance.
Kalveram summaries the PLOF concept as follows.
"First a harmful variable is assumed to be present in the environment, which
affects the individual's (Darwinian) fitness. Then a chance is given that a neural
detector will evolve, the input of which is the sensory – here acoustical –
stimulation correlated with this harmful variable, while the output is motivating
to actions which diminish the sensory input, thereby interrupting current
Those who experience long-term exposure to low frequency noise may
recognise this process within themselves.
Most field work on noise annoyance has been where there is a known source,
for example air or road transport. The particular circumstances of some low
frequency noise problems, where the noise source is not known, adds an
additional element to annoyance. Those affected suffer extreme frustration and
may find it necessary to assume a source, thus enabling themselves to cope
through provision of a focus for anger and resentment. Assumed sources have
included gas pipelines, radio transmissions and defence establishments.
8.2 Annoyance Measurements. Annoyance measurements are generally of the
type described by Kalveram (2000), an attempt to relate annoyance ratings
directly to measured noise levels. As described above, these measurements
are limited in their results, since they deal with only part of the annoyance
8.2.1 Laboratory determinations. There have been a large number of laboratory
determinations of annoyance of low frequency sounds, mainly measurements
using either 'normal' or 'sensitive' subjects. Stimuli have included tones, bands
of noise or specially developed spectra. There is of course, a wide range of
possible stimuli, which experimenters have chosen according to their
experience of what is required.(Adam, 1999; Andresen and Møller, 1984;
Broner and Leventhall, 1978b; Broner and Leventhall, 1984; Broner and
Leventhall, 1985; Goldstein, 1994; Goldstein and Kjellberg, 1985; Inukai et al.,
2000; Kjellberg and Goldstein, 1985; Kjellberg et al., 1984; Møller, 1987;
Nakamura and Inukai, 1998; Persson and Bjorkman, 1988; Persson-Waye,
1985; Poulsen, 2002; Poulsen and Mortensen, 2002). Some laboratory studies
have used recordings of real noises as stimuli, whilst others have worked with
the actual noises as experienced by subjects in their own work places or
homes. (Holmberg et al., 1993; Landström et al., 1994; Manley et al., 2002;
Mirowska, 1998; Tesarz et al., 1997; Vasudevan and Gordon, 1977;
Vasudevan and Leventhall, 1982).
Determinations have also been aimed at relating the A-weighted level of the
low frequency noise to its annoyance.
8.2.2 Experimental methods. The responses required from subjects vary with
experimental method. In laboratory investigations, subjects may be asked to
'imagine' themselves relaxing in their homes in the evening and to rate
annoyance by, for example, choice on a semantic scale ranging from 'Not
Annoying' to 'Extremely Annoying'. Other methods include marking the level of
annoyance on an unnumbered linear scale at a point between 'Not at all
annoying' and 'Very annoying', or assigning a number to a reference noise and
appropriate numbers to other noises in order to estimate their magnitudes.
These psychological techniques are well established, but need care in their
performance, as they are sensitive to experimental factors.
8.2.3 Equal annoyance contours. The main results of this work are as follows.
Møller (1987) investigated contours of equal annoyance for pure tones in the
frequency range 4Hz to 31.5Hz. The annoyance contours are influenced by the
narrowing of the range of equal loudness contours, discussed above. Møller's
results are shown in Figure 14. The vertical scale is the annoyance rating in
terms of the distance marked for the tone along a 150mm linear scale. The
lowest frequencies have to be at a higher level in order to be audible but, once
they become audible, their annoyance increases rapidly. For example, the
range for 4Hz is about 10dB between extremes. 8Hz and 16Hz have a 20dB
range, whilst 31.5Hz has nearly 40dB range. The 1000Hz comparison, which is
for an octave band of noise, has a range of nearly 60dB. These findings are
important, as they confirm that the hearing contours are reflected in
annoyance, although loudness and annoyance are not necessarily the same.
Figure 14 gives averages for 18 subjects with normal hearing.
8.2.3 Individual annoyance functions. Broner and Leventhall (1978) measured
individual annoyance functions for 20 subjects using ten low frequency noise
stimuli. The psychophysical function was assumed to be a simple power
Where ψ represents the estimation of psychological magnitude, ε is the
stimulus intensity and β a subject-specific exponent. It was shown that there
was a wide range of individual exponents, β, from a low of 0.045 to a high of
Figure 14. Annoyance rating, showing rapid growth at low frequencies.
0.4 and three groupings of individual differences were identified. Previous
work at higher frequencies had also shown individual loudness functions
(Barbenza et al., 1970) and had posed the question of whether one set of
regulations should be applied to all people (Bryan and Tempest, 1973).
8.2.4 Annoyance and the dBA. A comparison of a band of noise peaking at 250Hz
with a band peaking at 100Hz, whilst both were adjusted to the same A-
weighted level, showed that the annoyance from the low frequency noise was
greater than that from the higher frequency noise at the same A-weighted level
(Persson et al., 1985). This work was subsequently extended (Persson and
Bjorkman, 1988; Persson et al., 1990) using a wider range of noises, for
example, peaking at 80Hz, 250Hz. 500Hz and 1000Hz, leading to the following
There is a large variability between subjects.
The dBA underestimates annoyance for frequencies below about 200Hz.
For broadband low frequency noise, the underestimate was found to be 3dB
for levels around 65dB(Linear) and 6dB for levels around 70dB(Linear). Similar
results had been obtained in earlier work (Kjellberg et al., 1984). Two
broadband noises were investigated, in which one was dominated by energy in
the 15-50Hz range. Twenty subjects compared the two noises within the
dynamic range 49-86dBA. At equal A-weighted levels, the noise dominated by
the low frequency component was perceived as 4-7dB louder and 5-8dB more
Investigations have also been made to compare the effects on task
performance of either 100Hz and 1000Hz. tones or bands of noise centred on
100Hz (~ 2 octaves wide) and 1000Hz(~ 1 octave wide) (Landström et al.,
1993). During the experiment the subjects adjusted the tones or noises to
levels which they found to be acceptable for performance of the tasks. The
results indicated that, when the A-weighted levels were compared, it under-
rated the effects of the 100Hz tone by about 14dB, but over-rated the effects of
the band of noise centred on 100Hz by 10-15.5dB, depending on sound level.
There are clearly differences in the perceptions of tones and bands of noise.
8.2.5 Unpleasantness. The "unpleasantness" of low frequency noise has also been
estimated (Inukai et al., 2000; Nakamura and Inukai, 1998). Nakamura and
Inukai used a stimulus sound of a pure tone in 20 conditions from 3Hz to 40Hz
and pressure levels from 70dB to125dB, with evaluation by 17 subjects. There
were four main subjective factors in response to low frequency noise: auditory
perception, pressure on the eardrum, perception through the chest and more
general feeling of vibration. (In actual problems in the field, a fifth factor is the
failure of assessment methods, which intensifies other responses). Analysis of
the responses showed that auditory perception was the controlling factor.
Inukai et al (2000) determined "equal unpleasantness" contours for 39
subjects over a tone frequency range of 10Hz to 500 Hz (Figure 15). A
verbal scale was used ranging through: Not at all unpleasant (1) - somewhat
unpleasant (2) – unpleasant(3) – quite unpleasant(4) – very unpleasant(5).
Subjects in a test chamber were asked to assume different home and work
situations and adjust the level of a tone to match a level on the scale, as
requested by the experimenter. For example if instructed to match to level 4
(quite unpleasant), subjects would adjust the tone until they judged that this
level was reached. Results are shown in Figure 16. The numbers 1,2,3,4,5
refer to the unpleasantness level. All levels of unpleasantness are
approximately linear with a slope of 5 - 6dB per octave. The acceptable limits
for different locations are all above the hearing threshold in this laboratory
setting. For example, the self-adjusted acceptable limit in an assumed
bedroom is more than 10dB above threshold, but this might not be replicated
for long term night exposure in a real bedroom. This work emphasises the
point that a sound which is audible is not necessarily unacceptable.
8.2.6 Spectrum balance The work by Inukai et al (2000) was for single tones.
Spectrum balance has also been considered a factor in noise annoyance of a
wideband spectrum. Correlation of a number of complaints with the
corresponding spectra (Bryan, 1976) led to the conclusion that, for spectra
which averaged as shown in Figure 16, a fall off above 32Hz of 5.7dB/octave
was acceptable, whilst a fall off from 63Hz at 7.9 dB/octave was unacceptable.
Work on acceptable spectra of air conditioning noise in offices led to similar
conclusions (Blazier, 1981). Blazier found that, on average, acceptable office
environments had a fall off of 5dB/octave. An excess of low frequency noise
led to rumble, an excess of mid frequency noise led to roar, whilst an excess of
high frequency noise led to hiss. Later work (Blazier, 1997) developed a
"Quality Assessment Index" for an HVAC noise through the balance of low, mid
and high frequencies.
Figure 15. Equal unpleasantness contours and acceptable limits (Inukai).
A contrary view was given following work on different shapes of spectra
(Goldstein and Kjellberg, 1985). It was found that noise which fell by
3dB/octave was more annoying than noise which fell by 6dB/octave or
9dB/octave. This has not been resolved, but Bryan's subjects had long term
exposure in real settings, whilst Goldstein and Kjellberg's listened to 10 second
samples in the laboratory, so removing any temporal growth of annoyance
from the responses. It is also possible that, for the lower rates of fall off, the
subjects were responding to the high frequencies in the noise. Goldstein and
Kjellberg did show that the A-weighted level underestimates the perceived
annoyance of the noises.
8.2.7 (dBC – dBA) weighting. The difference between C- and A-weightings has
also been considered as a predictor of annoyance (Broner, 1979; Kjellberg et
al., 1997), as this difference is an indication of the amount of low frequency
energy in the noise. If the difference is greater than 20dB, there is the potential
for a low frequency noise problem. Kjellberg et al used existing noise in work
places (offices, laboratories, industry etc) with 508 subjects. Three sub- groups
were obtained with a maximum difference in low and high frequency exposure.
The conclusions on correlations of (dBC – dBA) difference and annoyance
were that the difference is of limited value, but, when the difference exceeds
15dB, an addition of 6dB to the A-weighted level is a simple procedure.
However, the difference breaks down when the levels are low, since the low
frequencies may then be below threshold. The difference cannot be used as an
annoyance predictor, but is a simple indicator of when further investigations
may be necessary.
8.2.8 (dBLIN – dBA) weighting. Disturbance from noise of industrial plants was
investigated by Cocchi et al (Cocchi et al., 1992). Comparisons were made of
loudness evaluations and various weighted levels and it was suggested that
the difference between linear and A-weighting could be used as an
assessment. For the spectra investigated, lower values of dBA (20 – 35dBA)
correlated with higher (dBLIN - dBA) differences of 20 to 30dB. For high values
Figure 16. Acceptable and unacceptable spectrum slopes.
of dBA (60 - 70dBA), the difference varied from 10-30dB, but mainly clustered
in the 10 – 20dB range. This is possibly because noise with low dBA values
might be associated with a higher proportion of low frequencies. Advantages of
(dBLIN - dBA) over (dBC – dBA) were not discussed.
8.2.9 Home and work environments. Other work, which has assessed low
frequency noise in real or assumed work environments or in the home, has
included (Bryan, 1976; Cocchi et al., 1992; Holmberg et al., 1997; Holmberg et
al., 1993; Holmberg et al., 1996; Landström et al., 1993; Landström et al.,
1994; Lundin and Ahman, 1998; Mirowska, 1998; Vasudevan and Gordon,
1977; Vasudevan and Leventhall, 1982).
Studies of simulated ventilation noise in a test laboratory (Holmberg et al.,
1993) showed that, for the same A-weighted levels, a ventilation noise with a
spectrum which fell gradually with increasing frequency was more annoying
than a noise with a band of raised levels around 43Hz. Difference in
acceptable comfort levels was 7dB. It was suggested that an A-weighted
criterion for ventilation noise should be 35dBA rather than 40dBA and be lower
still for environments designed for intellectual work. However, Landström et al.
(1994) investigated subjective adjustments to the frequency of a tone , in order
to produce the most and least acceptable frequencies, whilst maintaining the
overall level at 40dBA. The majority of subjects chose the most acceptable
frequency to be in the 50Hz - 63Hz third octave bands and the least acceptable
frequency to be in the 500Hz band. Whilst this may appear to contradict other
work, note that very few acceptable frequencies were chosen to be below
Homlberg et al (1996 and 1997) assessed noise in real environments. The
1996 paper compared responses of about 240 subjects with the noise
measures which might be available on a sound level meter i.e. dBLIN, dBA,
dBB, dBC and dBD and the difference (dBC-dBA). Additionally, Zwicker
loudness (ISO532, 1975) and Low Frequency Noise Rating (LFNR) (Broner
and Leventhall, 1983) were calculated. There was poor correlation between the
sound level meter weightings and annoyance. Similarly, the loudness in sones
and the difference (dBC – dBA) did not correlate well. The LFNR did separate
out annoying and not annoying noises, but no more effectively than the (dBC –
8.2.10 Level variations. Holmberg et al (1997) investigated noise in workplaces,
using the (dBC – dBA) difference as an indicator. Low frequency noise
exposure was found in a group of 35 out of a total of 337 persons.
Measurements of temporal variation of the levels of low frequency noise at the
workplaces, averaged over 0.5, 1.0 or 2.0 seconds, was correlated with
subjective annoyance. Significant correlation was found between the
irregularity of the noise levels and annoyance.
This work represents an advance, in that it shows the importance of
fluctuations in noise level. A limitation of much work on assessment of low
frequency noise has been that long term averaged measurements were used
and, consequently, information on fluctuations was lost. Many complaints of
low frequency noise refer to its throbbing or pulsing nature. Broner and
Leventhall(1983) had noted the importance of fluctuations and suggested a
fluctuation penalty of 3B in the Low Frequency Noise Rating Assessment. The
importance of fluctuations has also been assessed in laboratory experiments
(Bradley, 1994). Subjects listened first to steady wideband noises which
peaked at 31.5Hz and adjusted the overall level of these to be equally
annoying to a reference spectrum which fell at 5dB/octave. It was found that
the more prominent the low frequency noise, the greater the reduction in level
required for equality of annoyance with the reference spectrum. The test
spectra were now amplitude modulated, in the low frequency region only, at
modulation frequencies of 0.25, 0.5, 1.0, 2.0 and 4.0Hz and depths of 10dB
and 17dB. Subjects again adjusted the level of the noises to produce equal
annoyance with the (unmodulated) reference noise. The reductions varied with
modulation frequency and modulation depth. An example is that, for the
highest modulation depth at 2.0Hz modulation frequency, the level was
reduced by 12.9dB averaged over the subjects. This work confirms the
importance of fluctuations as a contributor to annoyance and the limitation of
those assessment methods, which do not include fluctuations in the
8.2.11 Field investigations. Vasudevan and Gordon (1977) carried out field
measurements and laboratory studies of persons who complained of low
frequency noise in their homes. A number of common factors were shown:
The problems arose in quiet rural or suburban environments
The noise was often close to inaudibility and heard by a minority of people
The noise was typically audible indoors and not outdoors
The noise was more audible at night than day
The noise had a throbbing and rumbly characteristic
The main complaints came from the 55-70 years age group
The complainants had normal hearing.
Medical examination excluded tinnitus.
These are now recognised as classic "hum" descriptors.
Further work in the laboratory showed that gradually falling spectra, as
measured in the field and simulated in the laboratory possessed a rumble
characteristic. Figure 17 compares a measured noise on the left with a
simulated noise on the right. Both fell at 7 – 8 dB/octave and had similar
rumble characteristics. It is also known that a rapidly falling spectrum, such as
one which follows the curve of the NR or NC ratings has an unpleasant quality.
This was one reason for the development of the PNC rating as an
improvement of the NC rating (Beranek et al., 1971). Further work (Vasudevan
and Leventhall, 1982), confirmed that levels close to threshold caused
annoyance, which increased if the noise also fluctuated. This work included
spectra with tonal peaks and emphasised that the nature (quality) of the noise
was important. Fluctuating noises may be far more annoying than predicted by
their average sound levels.
8.2.12 Inherent fluctuations. A narrow band of noise possesses inherent
fluctuations. The band has a central "carrier" frequency at approximately the
centre frequency of the band and a randomly fluctuating envelope with a mean
frequency of (0.64x bandwidth) (Rice, 1954). This means, for example, that a
third octave band of noise at 10Hz, which has a bandwidth of about 2.5Hz, will
have amplitude fluctuations of mean frequency 1.6Hz. The amplitude
fluctuations follow a Raleigh probability distribution. Physically one can
interpret the phenomenon as a beating between components within the noise
band and, as the components are of similar amplitude, the amplitude
fluctuations are large.
The preceding paragraphs show that both wideband falling noise spectra and
narrow band noise spectra may possess rumble characteristics.
8.2.13 Annoyance in homes. Recent work on annoyance to people in their homes
has been by Mirowska (1998) and Lundin and Ahman (1998). Both these
papers considered annoyance due to plant or appliances, installed in, or
adjacent to, living accommodation. Mirowska found problems from
transformers in electricity substations, ventilation fans, refrigeration units and
central heating pumps. Lundin and Ahman investigated a husband and wife
who experienced typical symptoms of aversion to low frequency noise.
Refrigerators and freezers were suspected as the source of the offending noise
which, in some parts of the building, was high at 50Hz. The time varying
pattern of the noise, due to equipment cycling, was considered to add to its
annoyance. However, there was no totally convincing link between effects on
health and the noise.
Figure 17. Measured spectrum (left) and simulated spectrum (right).
9. Effects of low frequency noise on behaviour,
sleep periods, task performance and social
9.1 Naturally occurring infrasound. The effects of infrasound generated by
storms up to 1500 miles away were investigated in Chicago during May 1967,
a period when the weather in Chicago was calm (Green and Dunn, 1968).
Statistics on road traffic accidents and school absences indicated higher
correlations on days of intense infrasonic disturbances, as compared with days
of mild infrasound. The Föhn wind is a warm, dry down-current, which occurs
in mountainous areas. It is associated with a sharp temperature rise, decrease
in humidity and drop in barometric pressure. (Moos, 1963; Moos, 1964). It is
not known whether infrasound has been measured under the conditions of the
Föhn wind, but the shearing effects of the wind are potential sources of
infrasound. Moos' suggestions, following a study of local statistics, included the
Pre-Föhn weather has biological effects.
Mortality and birth rates are higher during Föhn periods than under other
weather conditions.
These papers refer to low frequency infrasound of natural occurrence. They
are exploratory and have not been followed up by other workers.
9.2 Low frequency noise and sleep. Although exposure to low frequency noise in
the home at night causes loss of sleep, there is evidence that low frequency
noise under other conditions induces short sleep periods (Fecci et al., 1971;
Landström and Byström, 1984; Landström et al., 1985; Landström et al., 1991;
Landström et al., 1982; Landström et al., 1983).
Fecci et al monitored workers exposed to noise from air conditioning in a
laboratory. The noise peaked at 8Hz with a level of 80dB, but also included
broadband noise at higher frequencies. It was found, by EEG recording, that
subjects exposed to the noise exhibited a much higher percentage of
drowsiness than that found in a non-exposed population.
Landström and his colleagues carried out a series of laboratory evaluations of
physiological effects of low frequency sound, with particular reference to sleep
periods, as detected by EEG recordings. The main conclusions from this work
Exposure to intermittent noise at 16Hz and a level of 125dB was an
effective stimulus of reduced wakefulness
When stimuli at 6Hz and 16Hz were at 10dB below and 10dB above the
hearing threshold, the levels above threshold led to a reduced wakefulness.
The levels below threshold did not have this effect.
When 10 deaf and 10 hearing subjects were exposed to 6Hz at 115dB for
20 minutes, reduced wakefulness was found amongst the hearing subjects,
but not the deaf ones. This indicates that the effects depend on cochlear
stimulation, since the noise was above threshold level.
A reduction in wakefulness occurred during a repeating 42Hz signal at
70dB, whilst an increase in wakefulness occurred for a repeating 1000Hz
signal at 30dB.
Exposure to ventilation noise with and without tones indicated greater
fatigue in the presence of the tone. A masking noise (pink noise) added to
the ventilation noise tended to counteract this effect.
The work by Landström and colleagues shows that low frequency noise above
the threshold of hearing leads to reduction in wakefulness. This does not
contradict Fecci, although the spectrum for the workers investigated by him
was below threshold at the peak of 8Hz, as the spectrum was above the
threshold at frequencies greater than 20Hz. Fecci may have been mistaken in
attributing the effects he observed to the frequencies below 20Hz.
9.3 Low frequency noise and task performance. The hypothesis that low
frequency noise may cause deterioration in the performance of tasks has been
tested a number of times (Kyriakides and Leventhall, 1977; Landström et al.,
1991; Persson-Waye et al., 2001; Persson-Waye et al., 1997).
Kyriakides and Leventhall used a continuous pointer-following task as the
central task, whilst a peripheral task required a response to the onset of lights
located both in front of the subject and on the periphery of vision. The test
conditions were obtained from: audio frequency noise at 70dBA as the
reference, an infrasound noise band from 2Hz to 15Hz at 115dB, an audio
frequency noise band from 40Hz to 16kHz at 90dBA, alcohol (94mm3 of vodka
taken with fizzy orange) or a placebo (fizzy orange), combined alcohol and
infrasound, combined audible noise and infrasound. The tasks were performed
for 36 minutes. Results showed that, under the noise condition, performance
was maintained for the central task, but the peripheral task deteriorated. The
alcohol, which put subjects into a condition where they failed a breathalyser
test, produced deterioration of both the central and peripheral tasks. The
effects of infrasound were similar to alcohol in character, but not statistically
significant. However, there was an indication that the effect of infrasound
increased with time spent on the task.
Landström used figure identification as a test of performance, in which the
subject had to identify five different patterns hidden in 15 different figures.
Noise exposures were either to broadband ventilation noise, to which a tone at
100Hz, 40dBA, had been added, or to the tone noise with a pink masking
noise (50 – 200Hz, 41dBA). The number of correct answers was lower without
the masking noise.
Persson Waye et al (1977) assessed effects of low frequency noise on
performance in a simulated office environment, in order to study both
subjective and objective effects. Two ventilation noises were used, both of the
same A-weighted level (41-42dBA) and NC / NR35 rating. One was mid
frequency broadband, whilst the other had an added peak at 31.5Hz of 70dB,
as shown in Figure 18. Subjects were selected from those who felt eardrum
pressure from low frequency noise. The subjects performed three cognitive
tasks under both noise conditions. The work showed that low frequency noise
interfered more strongly with performance and that cognitive demands were
less well coped with under these conditions. There was an indication of effects
developing over time. Effects on mood included a lower social orientation and
lowered feeling of pleasantness.
Perrson Waye et al (2001) refined and extended this work in order to answer
the following questions:
Can low frequency noise, at a level normally present in control rooms and
offices, influence performance and subjective well being?
What kind of performance tasks are affected by low frequency noise?
How is the performance affected by duration of exposure?
What is the relation between self rated sensitivity and noise effects?
A total of 32 subjects, assessed for sensitivity to low frequency noise, took
part.18 subjects had high sensitivity to low frequency noise. Three computer-
based and one pen and paper based performance tasks were used.
Additionally, a questionnaire, to evaluate effort, mood, annoyance, adverse
symptoms etc. was completed by the subjects. The results showed that low
frequency noise, at levels occurring in office and control rooms, had a negative
influence on more demanding verbal tasks, but its effects on more routine
tasks was less clear. There was an indication that the low frequency noise was
more difficult to ignore or habituate to, which may reduce available information
processing resources. The study supports the hypothesis that low frequency
noise may impair work performance.
Although these studies were directed at work environments, they have a clear
application to effects of low frequency noise in the home.
Figure 18. Test spectra, low frequency and mid frequency.
10. Low frequency noise and stress
Stresses may be grouped into three broad types: cataclysmic stress, personal
stress and background stress. Cataclysmic stress includes widespread and
devastating physical events. Personal stress includes bereavements and
similar personal tragedies. Cataclysmic and personal stresses are evident
occurrences, which are met with sympathy and support, whilst their impacts
normally reduce with time. Background stresses are persistent events, which
may become routine elements of our life. Constant low frequency noise has
been classified as a background stressor (Benton, 1997b; Benton and
Leventhall, 1994). Whilst it is acceptable, under the effects of cataclysmic and
personal stress, to withdraw from coping with normal daily demands, this is not
permitted for low level background stresses. Inadequate reserves of coping
ability then leads to the development of stress symptoms. In this way, chronic
psychophysiological damage may result from long-term exposure to low-level
low frequency noise.
Changes in behaviour also follow from long-term exposure to low frequency
noise. Those exposed may adopt protective strategies, such as sleeping in
their garage if the noise is less disturbing there. Or they may sleep elsewhere,
returning to their own homes only during the day. Others tense into the noise
and, over time, may undergo character changes, particularly in relation to
social orientation, consistent with their failure to recruit support and consent
that they do have a genuine noise problem. Their families and the investigating
EHO may also become part of their problem. The claim that their "lives have
been ruined" by the noise is not an exaggeration, although their reaction to the
noise might have been modifiable at an earlier stage.
10.1 Low frequency noise and cortisol secretion. It is difficult to measure stress
directly, but cortisol secretion has been used as a stress indicator (Ising and
Ising, 2002; Persson-Waye et al., 2002; Persson-Waye et al., 2003). Under
normal circumstances, cortisol levels follow a distinct circadian pattern in which
the diurnal variation of cortisol is to drop to very low levels during the early
morning sleep period, rising towards the awakening time. The rise continues
until about 30 minutes after awakening, followed by a fall until midday and
further fluctuations. Stress disrupts the normal cortisol pattern.
Ising and Ising (2002) discuss how noise, perceived as a threat , stimulates
release of cortisol. This also occurs during sleep, thus increasing the level of
night cortisol, which may interrupt recreative and other qualities of sleep.
Measurements were made of the effect on children who, because of traffic
changes, had become exposed to a high level of night lorry noise. There were
two groups of subjects, exposed to high and low noise levels. The indoor noise
spectrum for high levels typically peaked at around 60Hz, at 65dB, with a
difference of maximum LC and LA of 26dB. The difference of average levels
was 25dB, thus indicating a low frequency noise problem. Children exposed to
the higher noise levels in the sample had significantly more problems with
concentration, memory and sleep and also had higher cortisol secretions.
Conclusions of the work were that the A-weighting is inadequate and that safer
limits are needed for low frequency noise at night.
Perrson Waye et al (2003), studied the effect on sleep quality and wakening of
traffic noise ( 35dB LAeq, 50dBLAmax) and low frequency noise (40dBLAeq). The
low frequency noise peaked at 50Hz with a level of 70dB. In addition to cortisol
determinations from saliva samples, the subjects completed questionnaires on
their quality of sleep, relaxation and social inclinations. The main findings of the
study were that levels of the cortisol awakening response were depressed after
exposure to low frequency noise and that this was associated with tiredness
and a negative mood.
In a laboratory study of noise sensitive subjects performing work tasks, it was
found that enhanced salivary cortisol levels were produced by exposure to low
frequency noise (Persson-Waye et al., 2002). A finding was that subjects who
were sensitive to low frequency noise generally maintained higher cortisol
levels and also had impaired performance. A hypothesis from the study is that
changes in cortisol levels, such as produced by low frequency noise, may have
a negative influence on health, heightened by chronic noise exposure.
The three studies reviewed above show how low frequency noise disturbs the
normal cortisol pattern during night, awakening and daytime exposure. The
disturbances are associated with stress related effects.
EEG recording has been used to study sleep disturbance by low frequency
noise (Inaba and Okada, 1988). Subjects in a sleep laboratory were exposed
to levels up to 105dB at 10Hz and 20Hz, up to 100dB at 40Hz and up to 90dB
at 63Hz. The effects were assessed by the "sleep efficiency index", which is
the ratio of total sleep time to time in bed. Sleep times were determined from
continuous EEG recordings. There was little effect for sound levels under
85dB, but reactions for the highest sound levels were significantly greater at
40Hz and 63Hz than for 10Hz and 20Hz.
11. The HUM
11.1 Occurrence. The Hum is the name given to a low frequency noise which is
causing persistent complaints, but often cannot be traced to a single, or any,
source. If a source is located, the problem moves into the category of
engineering noise control and is no longer "the Hum", although there may be a
long period between first complaint and final solution. The Hum is widespread,
affecting scattered individuals, but periodically a Hum focus arises where there
are multiple complaints within a town or area. There has been the Bristol Hum
(England), Largs Hum (Scotland), Copenhagen Hum (Denmark), Vancouver
Hum (Canada), Taos Hum (New Mexico USA), Kokomo Hum (Indiana USA)
etc. A feature of these Hums is that they have been publicised in local and
national press, so gathering a momentum which otherwise might not have
occurred. The concepts of memetics are applicable here. Memetics studies
how ideas are spread by "memes", where a meme is defined as a cognitive or
behavioural pattern, held in an individual's memory, which is capable of being
copied to another individual's memory. As examples, Marsden considers an
extreme application (Marsden, 2001) whilst Ross deals with the role of memes
in psychosomatic illness (Ross, 1999).
Although the named Hums, such as Kokomo, have gained much attention,
they should not be allowed to detract from the individuals who suffer on their
11.2 Hum character. The sound of the Hum differs between individuals. Even in the
areas of multiple complaints, the description is not completely consistent,
although this may be because people use different words to describe the same
property of a noise. Publicity tends to pull the descriptions together. The
general descriptors of the sound of the Hum include: a steady hum, a throb, a
low speed diesel engine, rumble and pulsing. A higher pitch, such as a hiss, is
sometimes attributed. The effects of the Hum may include pressure or pain in
the ear or head, body vibration or pain, loss of concentration, nausea and
sleep disturbance. These general descriptions and effects occur internationally,
with close similarity.
Unsympathetic handling of the complaint leads to a build-up of stress, which
exacerbates the problems. Hum sufferers tend to be middle aged and elderly,
with a majority of women. They may have a low tolerance level and be prone to
negative reactions. The knowledge that complaints are being taken seriously
by the authorities helps to reduce personal tensions, by easing the additional
stresses consequent upon not being believed. This is particularly so when, as
is often the case, only one person in a family is sensitive to the noise. Whilst
some Hum sufferers may have tinnitus, they will, of course, also be troubled by
noise at a different frequency from their tinnitus.
11.3 Psychological aspects. Psychosocial factors affect the physiological impact
of noise (Hatfield et al., 2001). Adverse physiological consequences may be
mediated by psychological factors related to the noise exposure. It is plausible
that excessive noise exposure promotes negative psychological reactions,
leading to adverse physiological effects, as was shown by Hatfield et al.
Therefore, psychological factors must be addressed to help ameliorate the
effects of the Hum.
Some Hum sufferers have achieved this for themselves, saying that they have
"learnt to live with the Hum" so that it no longer worries them. Others are
"cured" by prescription of relaxant drugs. For a few, the Hum goes away after a
time. Some escape the Hum by moving house. One long term sufferer, and
leading campaigner for official help with low frequency noise problems,
decided that it was time to leave the low frequency treadmill and now has no
problem, remaining detached from low frequency noise and of the opinion that
to become involved with other sufferers heightens ones awareness of the
noise. Some sufferers accept that the noises are not at a high level, but that
their reactions are equivalent to those which might be expected from a high
level of noise – "As soon as I hear the noise, something builds up inside me".
This is a similar response to that of hyperacusis sufferers, although more
specialised in its triggers. A form of hyperacusis may be indicated.
Combined acoustical and psychological studies (Kitamura and Yamada, 2002)
have explored involvement of the limbic system of the brain in the responses.1
The limbic system commands survival and emotional behaviours, which we
cannot always control, although we may learn to do so.
11.4 Sources. The Hum remains a puzzling aspect of low frequency noise. No
widespread Hum has been unequivocally traced to specific sources, although
suspicion has pointed at industrial complexes. At the time of writing, an
investigation of the Kokomo Hum is in progress, fully financed by the local
In the absence of known sources, Hum sufferers often search their
neighbourhoods for a source, walking or driving around at night. It is important
for them to find a target for their frustrations. Some general ones include the
main gas pipelines, radio transmissions (particularly pulsed signals for
navigation), defence establishments etc. Gas pipelines have been investigated
as a source (Krylov, 1995; Krylov, 1997). It was shown that there are
circumstances where turbulence in the pipes could result in ground waves,
which might couple with buildings and produce low frequency noise, although
this has not been measured. However, a different explanation must be sought
in areas remote from pipelines and it is possible that there are a number of
unrelated sources, whilst in some cases there may be no sources. There have
been other suggestions that the Hum may have its source in ground borne
vibrations (Manley et al., 2002; Rushforth et al., 1999).
1 The human brain has three layers representing its three stages of development. The primitive
(reptilian) brain is connected with self preservation. The intermediate (old mammalian) brain is the brain
of the inferior animals and related to emotions. This is the limbic system. The superior (new mammalian)
brain is related to rational thought and intellectual tasks. The limbic system is activated by perceived
11.5 Auditory sensitivity. Special difficulties arise when, despite persistent
complaints, there is no "measurable" noise, or the noise levels at low
frequencies are in the 40 - 50dB range, well below threshold. van den Berg
supports tinnitus as an explanation in these circumstances (van den Berg,
2001). With respect to audibility, the average threshold levels must be
interpreted carefully. van den Berg's choice of a limit criterion is the low
frequency binaural hearing threshold level for 10% of the 50 – 60 year old
population, which is 10-12 dB below their average hearing level (van den Berg
and Passchier-Vermeer, 1999a). This may be too strict, since 10% of the age
group has more sensitive hearing. For example, in England, which has a
population of about 49,000,000, there are nearly 5,000,000 in the 50 – 59 year
age group (see Thus, 500,000 of this age group in
England will be more sensitive than the suggested cut-off for perception of low
frequency noise. Yamada et al (1980) found one subject to be 15dB more
sensitive than the average, whilst recent work (Kitamura and Yamada, 2002),
gives two standard deviations from the average threshold as about 12dB.
However, the average threshold of the complainants in this work is somewhat
higher than the ISO 226 threshold. A range of two standard deviations covers
95% of people, Based on Kitamura and Yamada, three standard deviations,
assuming a random distribution, is given by 18dB from the average threshold
and covers 99% of the population. The remaining 1% includes 0.5% who are
more sensitive than the three standard deviation limit and 0.5% less sensitive
than this limit, at the opposite side of the average threshold. 0.5% of the
population of England is about 245,000 persons, whilst 0.5% of the 50 – 60
year age group is about 25,000 people, who might have very sensitive low
frequency hearing. A "rule of thumb" may be to take 15 - 20dB below the ISO
226 threshold as the cut off for perception, but this is a very generous level,
depending on the complainants hearing level at low frequencies.
Advice on how to approach problems of the Hum is given in Section 14.
12. Surveys of occurrence and effects
In a catalogue of 521 social surveys (Fields, 2001), there are four which are
specific to low frequency noise. Two of these are for clearly identified transport
sources - air and rail – two are for noise from other sources (Mirowska and
Mroz, 2000; Persson and Rylander, 1988) However, a number of additional
surveys, either not listed by Fields or too recent for inclusion, have also been
carried out (Møller and Lydolf, 2002; Persson-Waye and Bengtsson, 2002;
Persson-Waye and Rylander, 2001; Tempest, 1989; Yamada et al., 1987).
12.1 Complaint surveys
12.1.1 Sweden. Persson and Rylander (1988) surveyed all the 284 local authorities in
Sweden with respect to complaints from heat pumps, heavy traffic and fan and
ventilation installations. These three sources were 71% of all noise complaints,
comprising 42% ventilation systems, 20% heavy traffic, 9% heat pumps.
Where there had been an increase in complaints over time, heat pumps and
ventilation systems were the main problems. A recent follow-up (Persson-
Waye and Bengtsson 2002) investigated changes over a 14 year period from
1988 by questioning a random selection of 41 environmental authorities,
including 11 from districts with less than 50,000 inhabitants, 10 with 50,000 to
100,000 inhabitants and 11 with greater than 100,000 inhabitants. Low
frequency noise represented 44% of the noise complaints, although some
authorities had no complaints of low frequency noise, whilst one had over 200.
The sources of low frequency noise are shown in Figure 19.
Compressors 17.24%
Fan/ventilation 21.34%
Heatpumps 4.87%
Laundry 15.49%
See/air transport 5.57%
Heavy vehicles 9.20%
Music 17.85%
Others 8.44%
Figure 19. Percentages of sources causing complaints
Sea / air transport 5.57%
This follow-up study showed a relative reduction of low frequency noise
complaints compared with total noise complaints – 44% compared with 71%.
This was thought to be due to a higher number of general noise complaints or
to the limited selection of environmental authorities. Most of the authorities
preferred assessment of low frequency noise by third octave analysis in
preference to the use of A-weighting.
12.1.2 UK. Tempest (1989) conducted a survey amongst 242 UK local authorities,
which was 50% of the total number. There was an 87% response (210) and
453 complaints of low frequency noise identified in the two year period covered
by the survey. The distribution of complaints between categories is shown in
Figure 20. It will be noted, in this UK survey, that there are very few internal
sources. The conclusions of the survey were that, in the UK, there may be 526
complaints of low frequency noise a year and positive identification is made in
88% of cases. This leaves over 60 complaints a year which are potentially in
the "Hum" unsolved category.
Fig 20. Complaint categories (Tempest 1989)
Commercial premises
Electrical installations
Construction sites
Oil and gas rigs
Percent complaints
Figure 20. Complaint categories (Tempest 1989).
12.1.3 Japan. A database of low frequency noise problems has been established in
Japan by collecting the results of published work (Yamada et al., 1987). 206
datasets were obtained giving personal details, including individual threshold
measurements, the type of complaint and measured levels. Some main points
from the survey are:
At the lower frequencies, below 16Hz, the levels which cause complaints of
rattling of light-weight building components are below the hearing threshold.
The minimum measured threshold is 10-15dB below the average threshold.
12.1.4 Denmark. An extensive survey of individual complainants has been carried out
in Denmark (Møller and Lydolf, 2002). 198 fully completed questionnaires were
returned. The survey was detailed, containing 45 questions. The main results
Descriptions of the sound: Humming, rumbling, constant and unpleasant,
pressure in ears, affects whole body, sounds like large idling engine, coming
from far away.
Where and when heard: Mainly indoors at home (81.8%), some experience
the noise outside, particularly close to home, only a slight preponderance for
night time awareness.
Sensory perception: 92.9% heard the noise through their ears. Others were
aware of it but did not register the noise as a sound. There was some vibration
perception either through the body and by feeling vibration in buildings.
Time before trouble starts. Respondents were asked how long it was
between awareness of the sound and adverse reactions to it. For over 60% it
started immediately. About 25% required a few minutes awareness, 6%
required ½ to 1 hour. A small percentage took longer.
Do other people hear or sense the sound? Nearly 40% were the only ones
who perceived the sound. Nearly 30% said that just a few other persons did so,
whilst 14% claimed that everybody did.
Type of effects. There were multiple effects. Disturbance while falling asleep
(77.2%). Awakened from sleep (53.8%). Frequent awareness (68%). Frequent
irritation (75.1%). Disturbed when reading (61.9%). The sound is a torment
Other troubles. Insomnia (67.5%). Dizziness (29.4%). Headaches (40.1%).
Palpitation (41.1%). Lack of concentration (67%). Other effects (39.1%).
12.2 Effects on health. In an epidemiological survey of low frequency noise from
plant and appliances in or near domestic buildings, the focus was on health
effects (Mirowska and Mroz, 2000).
Percentages of exposed adults and the sources were as in Table 4.
Noise source LA dB Percentage
people exposed
Kind of exposure
Fans 26 – 31 33 Day, intermittent
Central heating pumps 23 – 33 18 Night, day intermittent
Transformers 20 – 23 30 Continuous
Refrigeration units 21 - 32 19 Night, day intermittent
Table 4. Noise exposures in survey.
In 81% of the test flats, levels were below the 25dBA night and 35dBA day
A control group of dwellings had comparable conditions to the test group, with
similar A-weighted levels, except that there was no low frequency noise.
There were 27 individuals in the test group and 22 in the control group.
The test group suffered more from their noise than the control group did,
particularly in terms of annoyance and sleep disturbance. They were also less
happy, less confident and more inclined to depression.
The comparison of the symptoms between the tested group and the control
group show clear differences, as in Table 5.
Symptom Test group % Control group %
Chronic fatigue 59 38
Heart ailments anxiety, stitch, beating palpitation 81 54
Chronic insomnia 41 9
Repeated headaches 89 59
Repeated ear pulsation, pains in neck, backache 70 40
Frequent ear vibration, eye ball and other
55 5
Shortness of breath, shallow breathing, chest
58 10
Frequent irritation, nervousness, anxiety 93 59
Frustration, depression, indecision 85 19
Depression 30 5
Table 5. Health comparison of exposed and control group.
These results are extremely interesting as an epidemiological survey of an
affected and a control group. Table 5 shows very adverse effects from low
frequency noise levels which are close to the threshold and which do not
exceed A-weighted limits.
Other work has investigated a group of 279 persons exposed to noise from
heat pump and ventilation installations in their homes (Persson-Waye and
Rylander, 2001). The experimental groups were 108 persons exposed to low
frequency noise and 171 non-exposed controls. There was no significant
difference in medical or psycho-social symptoms between the groups. This
work did show that the prevalence of annoyance and disturbed concentration
and rest was significantly greater among the persons exposed to low frequency
noise. The A-weighted levels did not predict annoyance.
Effects of low frequency noise have also been investigated in the laboratory
using the same subjects performing intellectual tasks, with and without low
frequency noise in the noise climate, but at the same A-weighted level. It has
been shown that, after the exposure session with low frequency noise, the
subjects were less happy and recorded a poorer social orientation. (Persson-
Waye et al., 1997).
12.3 Defra survey. The survey carried out in conjunction with this report for Defra
was deliberately kept simple, asking a few questions as follows, in addition to
personal details:
Date the noise was first heard
Where the noise is heard
The type of location
Is there a suspected source?
What does the noise sound like
When is the noise heard most?
What are the effects on you?
Additional comments were also invited.
The distribution of survey forms was to known complainants of low frequency
noise who had joined a pressure group: the Low Frequency Noise Sufferers
Association, the Noise Abatement Society or the UK Noise Association. About
700 survey forms were distributed and 157 were returned. Some of the returns
were not from genuine "hum" sufferers as they knew the source of the noise,
for example traffic from a nearby busy roundabout, a nearby commercial or
manufacturing establishment, vehicle reversing signals at a nearby
supermarket goods-in area, a gunnery range, a police helicopter at night etc.
However, they are people who react strongly to noise.
Main conclusions from the survey are:
12.3.1 Age range of complainants.
Below 25 none
26 35 0.65%
36 45 3.8%
46 - 55 15.9%
56 65 24.8%
66 75 32.5%
Above 75 12.7%
Unknown 9.5%
There is a clear increase with age. These figures are for men and women
combined. Nearly two thirds of the respondents were female.
12.3.2 Where the noise is heard most
Generally in the home 65%
(Including the bedroom)
House and garden 21%
Mainly the bedroom 8.9%
Outside only 1.9%
Only in the living room 1.3%
At a neighbours 0.65%
At the office 0.65%
Not given 0.65%
The great majority, about 95%, hear the noise in and around their homes.
12.3.3 When is the noise heard most?
At night only 48.4%
All the time 29.9%
Daytime 7%
Irregular 5%
Low background noise 3.2%
Evening 3%
Morning 1.3% (continued)
Depends on the wind 1.3%
Not given 1.9%
The majority , 78.3%, hear the noise all the time (including night) or at night
12.3.4 What does the noise sound like?
There were varied responses to this question. Over 20 different descriptions
were given, ranging from the familiar "hum" to morse code dots, jiggling rattles
and explosions. However, by combining similar responses, the following were
Hum 39.5%
Pulsing 21.6%
Engine and similar 22.3%
Vibration 1.9%
Other 14.2%
The "engine and similar" group is made up of "engine, machinery, rumble and
83.4% hear a hum, a pulsing or an engine. The engine is typically described as
an idling diesel.
12.3.5 Is there a suspected source? The source was sometimes local and well
known to the complainant. However, others were unable to suggest the source
of their noise.
A total of 37 returns did not know the source. 30 returns blamed the gas supply
system, but this response may have been partly due to previous publicity. The
remaining 90 returns gave a wide range of sources, usually local.
12.3.6 Type of location. The respondents lived in a range of locations, spread widely
across the UK. Rural, coastal, urban and suburban locations were included.
12.3.7 What is the effect of the noise on you? The effects were a close parallel to
those in the Møller and Lydolf survey described above. Pain or pressure in the
ears and head, sleep disturbance, irritation, body vibration and nausea were all
present. A small number had habituated to the noise, so that they were no
longer disturbed. One considered it as an intriguing, but harmless, curiosity.
13. General Review of Effects of Low Frequency
Noise on Health1
The results of a recent survey of complaints about infrasound and low
frequency noise on 198 persons in Denmark (Møller and Lydolf, 2002)
revealed that nearly all reported a sensory perception of sound. They
perceived the sound with their ears, but many mentioned also the perception of
vibration, either in their body or in external objects. The sound disturbs and
irritates during most activities, and many considered its presence as a torment
to them. Many reported secondary effects, such as insomnia, headache and
palpitation. These findings support earlier reports in the published literature.
13.1 Historical. Almost thirty years ago in a review paper of the effects of
infrasound on man (Westin, 1975) drew attention to the fact that the amount of
natural and man-made infrasound that man is subjected to is larger than is
generally realised. He stated that the few studies that have concerned
themselves uniquely with the physiological effects of moderate-to-high levels of
infrasound exposure (as opposed to audible sound or vibration exposures)
have failed to demonstrate significant effects on man other than those
concerning the inner ear and balance control. But the existing studies indicate
that inner ear symptoms due to moderate-to-high levels of infrasound may be
more common than is generally appreciated. At very high sound pressure
levels (greater than 140dB), ear pain and pressure become the limiting factors.
Direct evidence of adverse effects of exposure to low-intensity signals (less
than 90dB) is lacking.
Harris et al. (Harris et al., 1976) were of the opinion that the claims that
infrasound adversely affects human performance, makes people “drunk” and
directly elicits nystagmus, have not been clearly demonstrated in any
experimental study. The effects obtained at low intensity levels of 105 to
120dB, if they can be substantiated at all, have been exaggerated. Recent
well-designed studies conducted at higher intensity levels have found no
adverse effects of infrasound on reaction time or human equilibrium. The levels
at which infrasound becomes a hazard to man are still unknown. Previously,
(Slarve and Johnson, 1975) had exposed four male subjects to infrasound
ranging from 1 through 20Hz for a period of 8 minutes up to levels of 144dB.
There was no objective evidence (including audiograms) of any detrimental
effect of infrasound. However, all subjects experienced painless “pressure
build-up” in the middle ear that was relieved by valsalva manoeuvre or by
cessation of infrasound, and voice modulation and body vibration consistently
occurred. They concluded that infrasound pressures as high as 144dB are safe
for healthy subjects, at least for periods of 8 minutes, and they predicted that
longer periods would also be safe. Borredon (Borredon, 1972) exposed 42
young men to 7.5Hz at 130 dB for 50 minutes. This exposure caused no
adverse effects. The only statistically significant change reported among the
1 This section was contributed by Dr P L Pelmear
many parameters measured was an insignificant (< 1.5 mm Hg) increase in the
minimal arterial blood pressure. However, Borredon also reported that several
of his subjects felt drowsy after the infrasound exposure.
13.2 Effects on humans. Infrasound exposure is ubiquitous in modern life. It is
generated by natural sources such as earthquakes and wind. It is common in
urban environments, and as an emission from many artificial sources:
automobiles, rail traffic, aircraft, industrial machinery, artillery and mining
explosions, air movement machinery including wind turbines, compressors,
and ventilation or air-conditioning units, household appliances such as washing
machines, and some therapeutic devices. The effects of infrasound or low
frequency noise are of particular concern because of its pervasiveness due to
numerous sources, efficient propagation, and reduced efficiency of many
structures (dwellings, walls, and hearing protection) in attenuating low-
frequency noise compared with other noise.
In humans the effects studied have been on the cardiovascular and nervous
systems, eye structure, hearing and vestibular function, and the endocrine
system. Special central nervous system (CNS) effects studied included
annoyance, sleep and wakefulness, perception, evoked potentials,
electroencephalographic changes, and cognition. Reduction in wakefulness
during periods of infrasonic exposure above the hearing threshold has been
identified through changes in EEG, blood pressure, respiration, hormonal
production, performance and heart activity. Infrasound has been observed to
affect the pattern of sleep minutely. Exposure to 6 and 16 Hz levels at 10 dB
above the auditory threshold have been associated with a reduction in
wakefulness (Landström and Byström, 1984). It has also been possible to
confirm that the reduction on wakefulness is based on hearing perception since
deaf subjects have an absence of weariness (Landström, 1987).
In moderate infrasonic exposures, the physiological effects observed in
experimental studies often seem to reflect a general slowdown of the
physiological and psychological state. The reduction in wakefulness and the
correlated physiological responses are not isolated phenomena and the
physiological changes are considered to be secondary reactions to a primary
effect on the CNS. The effects of moderate infrasound exposure are thought to
arise from a correlation between hearing perception and a following stimulation
of the CNS. The participation of the reticular activating system (RAS) and the
hypothalamus is thought to be of great importance. Taking this into account,
changes in the physiological reactions are not just a question of whether the
sound waves are above the hearing threshold. Furthermore reactions within
the CNS, including RAS, hypothalamus, limbic system, and cortical regions are
probably highly influenced by the quality of the sound. Some frequencies and
characters of the noise are probably more effective than others for producing
A high degree of caution is necessary before ascribing the origin of
physiological changes in working situations to infrasonic exposure because of
their association. When analysing the factors promoting fatigue e.g. driving,
many aspects have to be considered. The environment is usually a
combination of many factors such as seat comfort, visibility, instrumentation,
vibration and noise. However, it is an important fact that in many situations e.g.
transport operations, there is a high degree of prolonged monotonous low
frequency noise stimulation. This could be crucial in inducing worker fatigue
and thereby constitute a safety hazard. Thus although exposure to infrasound
at the levels normally experienced by man does not tend to produce dramatic
health effects, exposure above the hearing perception level will produce
symptoms including weariness, annoyance, and unease. This may precipitate
safety concerns in some environmental and many work situations (Landström
and Pelmear, 1993).
The primary effect of infrasound in humans appears to be annoyance.
(Andresen and Møller, 1984; Broner, 1978a; Møller, 1984). To achieve a given
amount of annoyance, low frequencies were found to require greater sound
pressure than with higher frequencies; small changes in sound pressure could
then possibly cause significantly large changes in annoyance in the infrasonic
region (Andresen and Møller, 1984). Beginning at 127 to 133dB, pressure
sensation is experienced in the middle ear (Broner 1978a). Regarding potential
hearing damage Johnson (Johnson, 1982) concluded that short periods of
continuous exposure to infrasound below. 150dB are safe and that continuous
exposures up to 24 hours are safe if the levels are below 118dB.
13.3 Biological effects on humans, In the numerous published studies there is
little or no agreement about the biological activity following exposure to
infrasound. Reported effects include those on the inner ear, vertigo, imbalance
etc.; intolerable sensations, incapacitation, disorientation, nausea, vomiting,
bowl spasm; and resonances in inner organs, such as the abdomen and heart.
Workers exposed to simulated industrial infrasound of 5 and 10Hz and levels
of 100 and 135dB for 15 minutes reported feelings of fatigue, apathy and
depression, pressure in the ears, loss of concentration, drowsiness, and
vibration of internal organs. In addition, effects were found in the CNS,
cardiovascular and respiratory systems (Karpova et al., 1970). In contrast, a
study of drivers of long distance transport trucks exposed to infrasound at 115
dB found no statistically significant incidence of such symptoms (e.g. fatigue,
subdued sensation, abdominal symptoms, and hypertension (Kawano et al.,
Danielson and Landstrom (Danielsson and Landstrom, 1985) exposed twenty
healthy male volunteers to infrasound in a pressure chamber and the effects
on blood pressure, pulse rate and serum cortisol levels of acute infrasonic
stimulation were studied. Varying frequencies (6, 12, 16Hz) and sound
pressure levels (95, 110, 125dB) were tested. Significantly increased diastolic
and decreased systolic blood pressures were recorded without any rise in
pulse rate. The increase in blood pressure reached a maximal mean of about 8
mm Hg after 30 minutes exposure. Lidstrom (Lidstrom, 1978) found that long-
term exposure of active aircraft pilots to infrasound of 14 or 16Hz at 125dB
produced the same changes. Additional findings in the pilots were decreased
alertness, faster decrease in the electrical resistance of the skin compared to
unexposed individuals, and alteration of hearing threshold and time perception.
In several experiments to assess cognitive performance during exposure to
infrasound (7 Hz tones at 125, 132, and 142dB plus ambient noise or a low
frequency noise up to 30 minutes), no reduction in performance was observed
in the subjects (Harris and Johnson, 1978). Sole exposure to infrasound at 10
to 15Hz and 130 to 135dB for 30 minutes also did not produce changes in
autonomic nervous function (Taenaka, 1989). The ability of infrasound (5 and
16Hz at 95dB for five minutes) to alter body sway responses suggested effects
on inner ear function and balance (Tagikawa et al., 1988).
To study vestibular effects in humans, both a rail-balancing task and direct
nystagmus (involuntary eye movements) measurements have been used. In
the balancing task subjects were required to balance on narrow rails while
being presented with various acoustic stimuli. The task results indicated that
humans were affected in the audible range as low as 95dB. For frequencies of
0.6, 1.6, 2.4, 7 and 12Hz, aural stimulation at levels as high as 14 dB, either
monaural or bilateral, did not significantly affect rail-task performance (Harris,
1976; von Gierke, 1973). However, Evans (Evans and Tempest, 1972)
examining the effect of infrasonic environments on human behaviour found that
30% of normal subjects exposed to tones of 2 – 10Hz through earphones at
SPLs of 120 – 150Hz had nystagmus within 60 seconds of exposure to the
120dB signal, with 7Hz being most effective in causing it. Higher intensities
resulted in faster onset of nystagmus, but there were no complaints of
discomfort from any of the subjects at any SPL. Subsequently, Johnson
(Johnson, 1975), who investigated nystagmus in many experiments under
different conditions with aural infrasound stimulations from 142 to 155dB had
negative results. For example, an investigator stood on one leg with his eyes
closed, listening aurally to 165dB at 7Hz and 172dB at 1 to 8Hz (frequency
sweep) without effect.
Research on the effect of infrasound on mental performance has also shown
negative results. For example, infrasound at 125dB (7Hz) did not significantly
affect subjects’ ability to perform a serial search, a mental task requiring
searching and linking pairs of numbers together into a progression (Harris and
Johnson, 1978). Because of the lack of CNS effects in controlled studies, the
reports of fatigue, drowsiness, or sleepiness have generally been discounted
as unimportant. ACGIH believes these are the consequence of the simple
relaxation effects of infrasound rather then any adverse health effect (ACGIH,
Although the effects of lower intensities are difficult to establish for
methodological reasons, evidence suggests that a number of adverse effects
of noise in general arise from exposure to low frequency noise: loudness
judgements and annoyance reactions are sometimes reported to be greater for
low frequency noise than other noises for equal sound pressure level;
annoyance is exacerbated by rattle or vibration induced by low frequency
noise; and speech intelligibility may be reduced more by low frequency noise
than other noises except those in the frequency range of speech itself,
because of the upward spread of masking. Intense low frequency noise
appears to produce clear symptoms including respiratory impairment and aural
pain. On the other hand it is also possible that low frequency noise provides
some protection against the effects of simultaneous higher frequency noise on
hearing (Berglund et al., 1996).
13.4 Infrasound studies in laboratory animals. The results of some animal
studies reporting adverse effects from infrasound exposure may be relevant for
indicating possible human health effects. The following studies would seem to
be of interest.
a) Vascular - Myocardium
Alekseev (Alekseev et al., 1985) exposed rats and guinea pigs (5 test animals,
2 controls per group) to infrasound (4 to 16Hz) at 90 to 145dB for 3 h/day for
45 days; and tissues were collected on days 5, 10, 15, 25, and 45 for
pathomorphological examination. A single exposure to 4 to 10 Hz at 120 to
125dB led to short-term arterial constriction and capillary dilatation in the
myocardium. Prolonged exposure led to nuclear deformation, mitochondrial
damage and other pathologies. Effects were most marked after 10 to 15Hz
exposures at 135 to 145dB. Regenerative changes were observed within 40
days after exposure.
Gordeladze (Gordeladze et al., 1986) exposed rats and guinea pigs (10
animals per group) to 8Hz at 120dB for 3 h/day for 1, 5, 10, 15, 25, or 40 days.
Concentrations of oxidation-reduction enzymes were measured in the
myocardium. Pathological changes in myocardial cells, disturbances of the
microcirculation, and mitochondrial destruction in endothelial cells of the
capillaries increased in severity with increasing length of exposure. Ischemic
foci formed in the myocardium. However, changes were reversible after
exposure ceased.
Rats and guinea pigs exposed to infrasound (8 or 16Hz) at 120 to 140dB for 3
h/day for 1 to 40 days showed morphological and physiological changes in the
myocardium. (Nekhoroshev and Glinchikov, 1991)
- Conjunctiva
Male rats (10 /group) exposed to infrasound (8Hz) at 100 and 140dB for 3
h/day for 5, 10, 15, or 25 days showed constriction of all parts of the
conjunctival vascularture within 5 days (Svidovyi and Kuklina, 1985). Swelling
of the cytoplasm and the nuclei of the endotheliocytes accompanied the
decrease in the lumen of the capillaries. The capillaries, pre-capillaries, and
arterioles became crimped. Morphological changes were reported in the
vessels after exposure for 10, 15, and 25 days. After 25 days, increased
permeability of the blood vessels led to swelling of tissues and surrounding
capillaries and to peri-vascular leukocyte infiltration. Significant aggregates of
formed elements of the blood were observed in the large vessels.
b) Liver
Infrasound exposure damaged the nuclei apparatus, intracellular membrane,
and mitochondria of rat hepatocytes in vivo (Alekseev et al., 1987). Infrasound
(2, 4, 8, or 16Hz) at 90 to 140 dB for 3 h/day for 40 days induced
histopathological and morphological changes in hepatocytes from rats on days
5 to 40. Infrasound (8Hz) at 120 to 140dB induced pathological changes in
hepatocytes from the glandular parenchyma and sinusoids.
Morphological and histochemical changes were studied in the hepatocytes of
rats and guinea pigs exposed to infrasound (2, 4, 8, or 16Hz) at 90, 100, 110,
120, 130 or 140dB for 3 h/day for 5 to 40 days (Nekhoroshev and Glinchikov,
1992a). Hepatocytes showed increased functional activity, but exposures for
25 and 40 days induced irreversible changes. Changes were more pronounced
at 8 and 16Hz than at 2 and 4Hz. Exposures impaired cell organoids and
nuclear chromatin. Single exposures did not induce any changes in the
hepatocytes and small blood vessels.
c) Metabolism
(Shvaiko et al., 1984) found that rats exposed to 8Hz at 90, 115, or 135dB
exhibited statistically significant changes in copper, molybdenum, iron, and/or
manganese concentrations in liver, spleen, brain, skeletal muscle, and/or
femur compared to concentrations in the tissues of controls. Practically all
tissues showed significant changes in all the elements for exposures at 135dB.
Changes included elevations and depressions in concentrations. The trends
were consistent with increasing sound pressure except for some tissue copper
d) Auditory
(Nekhoroshev, 1985) exposed rats to noise of frequencies 4, 31.5, or 53Hz at
110dB for 0.5 h, 3 h, or 3 h/day for 40 days. Infrasound exposure caused
graver changes than exposure to sound at 31.5 or 53Hz. Changes observed
after exposure to this acoustic factor included reduced activity of alkaline
phosphotase in the stria vascularis vessels and their impaired permeability.
Impaired labyrinthine hemodynamics led to neurosensory hearing impairment.
(Bohne and Harding, 2000) sought to determine if noise damage in the organ
of Corti was different in the low- and high-frequency regions of the cochlea.
Chinchillas were exposed for 2 to 432 days to a 0.5 (low-frequency) or 4kHz
(high-frequency) octave band noise at 47 to 95dB sound pressure level.
Auditory thresholds were determined before, during and after noise exposure.
The cochlea’s were examined microscopically, missing cells were counted, and
the sequence of degeneration was determined as a function of recovery time
(0 – 30 days). With high-frequency noise, primary damage began as small
focal losses of outer hair cells in the 4-8kHz region. With continued exposure,
damage progressed to involve loss of an entire segment of the organ of Corti,
along with adjacent myelinated nerve fibres. With low-frequency noise, primary
damage appeared as outer high cell loss scattered over a broad area in the
apex. With continued exposure, additional apical hair cells degenerated, while
supporting cells, inner hair cells, and nerve fibres remained intact. Continued
exposure to low-frequency noise also resulted in focal lesions in the basal
cochlea that were indistinguishable from those resulting from high-frequency
In guinea pigs, low-frequency pressure changes have been shown to cause
head and eye movements (nystagmus) of the animals for square wave pulses
with pressure above 150 dB (Parker et al., 1968).
e) Brain
(Nishimura et al., 1987) suggested from experiments on animals that
infrasound influences the rat’s pituitary adreno-cortical system as a stressor,
and that the effects begin at sound pressure levels between 100 and 120 dB at
16Hz. The concentration of hormones shows a slight increase with exposure to
infrasound. In the task performance a reduction was seen in the rate of
working. It seems probable that concentration was impaired by infrasound
(Nekhoroshev and Glinchikov, 1992b) exposed rats and guinea pigs (3 per sex
per dose level) to 8Hz at 120 and 140dB for 3 hours or 3 h/day for 5, 10, 15,
25, or 40 days and they showed changes in the heart, neurons, and the
auditory cortex increasing in severity with increasing length of exposure. The
presence of hemorrhagic changes are attributed mostly to the mechanical
action rather than to the acoustic action of infrasound. They suggested that the
changes in the brain may be more important than in the ears.
f) Lung
Histopathological and histomorphological changes were determined in the
lungs of male albino mice exposed to infrasound (2, 4, 8, or 16Hz) at 90 to
120dB for 3 h/day for up to 40 days (Svidovyi and Glinchikov, 1987). After
prolonged exposure to 8 Hz at 120 dB sectioned lungs revealed filling of acini
with erythrocytes and thickening of inter-alveolar septa; after prolonged
exposure to 8 and 16Hz at 140dB sectioned lungs revealed ruptured blood
vessel walls, partially destroyed acini, and induced hypertrophy of type-II cells.
13.5 Discussion. No medical condition has been reported in the literature (Tierney
Jr et al., 2003) to be associated with the perception of infrasound or its
enhancement, but many of the symptoms reported by complainants with
perceived or actual infrasound exposure are associated with human disease.
Sleep disorders – getting to or staying asleep, intermittent wakefulness, early
morning awakening or combinations of these are common in depression and
psychiatric disorders, particularly manic. And they are associated with abuse of
alcohol, heavy smoking, stress, caffeine, physical discomfort, daytime napping,
and early bedtime.
Headache – chronic headaches are commonly due to migraine, tension or
depression but may be related to intracranial lesions, head injury, cervical
spondylosis, dental or ocular disease (glaucoma), temporo-mandibular joint
dysfunction, sinusitis, hypertension and a wide variety of general medical
disorders. By enquiry of precipitating factors, timing of symptoms, and
progression most may be distinguished. Those associated with neurological
symptoms need a cranial MRI or CT scan, however, about one third of brain
tumours present with a primary complaint of headache. With brain tumours and
abscesses the clinical presentation is variable and is primarily determined by
anatomical location, proximity to the ventricles, and major alterations in the
intracranial pressure dynamics secondary to the mass.
Vertigo – is the cardinal symptom of vestibular (ear) disease. Local causes
include perilymphatic fistula, endolymphatic hydrops (Meniere’s disease),
labrynthitis, acoustic neuroma, ototoxicity, vestibular neuronitis, and vestibular
migraine. Central causes include brainstem vascular disease, tumours of the
brain stem and cerebellum, multiple sclerosis and vertebrobasilar migraine.
Nystagmus – common causes include Meniere’s disease, labrynthitis (with
hearing loss and tinnitus), transient following changes in head position, vertigo
syndrome due to central lesions e.g. brainstem vascular disease,
arteriovenous malfunctions, tumour of the brainstem and cerebellum, multiple
sclerosis, and vertebrobasilar migraine.
Nausea and vomiting – this may be caused by a) visceral efferent stimulation –
mechanical e.g. gastric outlet obstruction, peptic ulcer, malignancy, small
intestine obstruction, adhesions, Crohn’s disease, carcinomatosis etc.;
dysmotility by medications, small intestine scleroderma, amyloidosis; peritoneal
irritation; infections; hepatic disorders; cardiac and urinary disease. b) CNS
disorders – vestibular; tumours; infection; and psychogenic (bulimia). c)
irritation of chemoreceptor – antitumor chemotherapy; drugs; radiotherapy;
pregnancy; hypothyroid and parathyroid disease.
Mental changes – nervousness, excitability, etc., which may be caused by
underlying endocrine disorders e.g. hyperthyroidism, menopause, and vitamin
Hallucinations (usually auditory) – may be persistent or recurrent without other
symptoms and are usually associated with delirium or dementia. Alcohol or
hallucinogens are often the cause.
Hence in the evaluation of subjects with symptoms, which may be attributable
to infrasound exposure, a full clinical examination and assessment needs to be
undertaken to exclude any other primary or secondary cause.
13.6 Conclusion. There is no doubt that some humans exposed to infrasound
experience abnormal ear, CNS, and resonance induced symptoms that are
real and stressful. If this is not recognised by investigators or their treating
physicians, and properly addressed with understanding and sympathy, a
psychological reaction will follow and the patient’s problems will be
compounded. Most subjects may be reassured that there will be no serious
consequences to their health from infrasound exposure and if further exposure
is avoided they may expect to become symptom free.
14. Complaint procedures
Complaints of low frequency noise must be handled with sincerity and
compassion, recognising that low frequency noise is an area of complex
subjective diversity. An unsympathetic approach compounds the problems of
the complainant, who may already be feeling distressed, disbelieved and
isolated. This is especially so when complainants are the only one in their
homes who hear the noise.
14.1 UK advice. Advice on how to approach investigation of a complaint is as
follows. (Casella-Stanger, 2002).
The investigator's first visit should be handled with particular care and the
complainant must be shown respect. The situation should be approached with
an open mind in order to avoid any entrenched reaction to the complainant.
Continue to keep an open mind during the investigation. Discuss the problem
with the complainant and obtain a history and background to it. The history
should include the following.
When the noise was first heard
Type of noise heard
Duration and frequency of occurrence of the noise
Complainant's belief about the source
Effects of noise on the complainant
Whether other family members hear the noise
Whether the complainant believes he/she is particularly sensitive to other
sources of noise.
14.1.1 Investigation procedure. A flow chart of a typical investigation is given in
Figure 21. One unfortunate outcome of unsympathetic handling may be that
the complainant is transferred from noise specialist to medical specialist and
back to noise specialist, whilst both maintain that they can find no basis for the
At the present time, some complainants of low frequency noise in the UK
consider that they are inadequately served by Environmental Health Officers
(Benton and Yehuda-Abramson, 2002; Guest, 2002). This is because of a
perception of inadequate training in low frequency noise problems, inadequate
equipment and a reliance on A-weighting for assessment, leading to frequent
conclusions of "not a Statutory Nuisance". This is not the fault of the EHO's
who have to work within the current legislation and with the equipment with
which they are provided. These problems produce a sense of isolation in the
complainant, with attendant elevation of anxiety. The authorities might view the
resulting behaviour as inappropriate, but from the complainant's view it is the
most rational and best they can achieve.
Figure 21. Flow chart of low frequency noise investigation.
14.2 Dutch advice. In the Netherlands, the Environmental Protection Agency
of the Rotterdam region has adopted a structured approach to low frequency
noise problems (Sloven, 2001). Support is provided for those who are called in
to investigate low frequency noise, since the sporadic nature of the complaints
means that there are few specialists.
Depending on how the complaint comes in, a typical procedure may be as
follows. An inspector from the Environmental Protection Agency (technical
aspects and management) contacts the appropriate Municipal Health Service
(psychological and social aspects). They work together through a protocol
similar to that in Figure 20 to determine whether the problem is "source
orientated" or "person orientated".
The investigation is terminated when either the source is located and the
problem solved, or if it is decided that the complainant is confused and needs
alternative help. Termination may also occur for the following reasons:
Levels are very low and the source not determinable without excessive
The source is known, but not controllable e.g. traffic
Experience is that similar cases have not been solvable
The complainant has multiple problems, others more severe than the low
frequency noise
The complainant refuses co-operation or decides to move house.
The Dutch approach is interesting, as it makes use of both technical and social
specialists, working together to obtain a rounded picture of the problem.
Technical assessment is based on the hearing level exceeded by 5% of the
Dutch 55 year old population. Sloven notes that the average age of
complainants of low frequency noise is 55, with two thirds female. This is
similar to the experience of other countries, but Sloven adds that, for all
environmental complainants in the Netherlands (20,000 a year), 70% are
women with an average age of about 55, so that the pattern of low frequency
noise complaints is not unusual. He also notes that, in about the year 2015,
half of the Dutch population will be over 55 years of age.
15. Limits and Criteria
In setting criterion limits it is implicit that these are at levels which protect a
certain percentage of the population. Noise levels at which protection is offered
typically leave 10-20% of the population annoyed by a noise, since the desire
to improve the environment is moderated by technical and economic factors.
However, as there is a weak relation between the annoyance of low frequency
noise in the home and its level, there may be an argument for more protective
criteria for low frequency noise than those which are recommended for other
noises (Benton, 1997a).
15.1 Development of criteria. Detailed criteria for environmental low frequency
noise have developed over the past 25 years, driven by specific problems,
particularly gas turbine installations, which radiate high levels of low frequency
noise from their discharge. (Challis and Challis, 1978). Existing criteria from
that time are reviewed by Challis and Challis. All criteria for low frequency
noise seek to limit the low frequencies to a greater extent than would be
permitted by general environmental noise criteria such as Noise Rating (NR),
(Kosten and van Os, 1962), which is shown in Figure 22.
0 16 31.5 63 125 250 500 1K 2K 4K 8K
Octave-band Centre Freq (Hz)
Figure 22. Noise Rating Curves. The two spectra of Figure 18 are
plotted, showing how spectra with different subjective effects may
have a similar NR number, in this case a little more than NR35.
For example, at low levels of mid-frequency noise, typical low frequency
criteria permit a rise in noise levels of about 40dB between 8kHz and 31.5Hz,
compared with about 60dB rise for NR 15. Most of the additional reduction is
in the low frequency bands. Challis and Challis proposed a set of modified NR
curves (NRM) following this pattern and extended down to 16Hz. Noise Rating
is not suitable for use with those spectra which have high levels of low
frequency noise. In fact, the spectra on which it was tested by Kosten and van
Os were deficient in low frequency noise.
15.2 Sound level meter weighting. A sound level meter weighting curve was
developed for low frequency noise assessment, as in Figure 23. (Inukai et al.,
1990) The weighting curves pass more low frequencies through the sound
level meter than the A-weighting does, giving them a greater influence on the
overall sound level meter reading.
Both the LF curve and the LF2 curve rise in the region of 40Hz. In the LF2
curve, this is by about 10dB, which represents a selective penalty in the region
of 40Hz.
15.3 LFNR Curves. Similar results had been found by Broner and Leventhall (1983)
in work which was based on experiments with subjects judging annoyance of
10Hz wide bands of low frequency noise from 25Hz to 85Hz centre
frequencies. It was found that there was a peak in annoyance in the bands with
centre frequencies 35Hz and 45 Hz, showing that these bands were more
annoying than the lower or higher frequency bands. A similar result had been
obtained earlier (Kraemer, 1973). Broner and Leventhall used their results to
modify the NR curves in the low frequency region, leading to the LFNR curves,
Figure 23. Sound level meter low frequency weighting networks.
which impose low frequency penalties as shown in Figure. 24. The curves are
similar to NR curves down to 125Hz, but are more restrictive at lower
frequencies. The curves are used in the following way.
Plot the noise spectrum on the curves and, for frequencies above 125Hz,
determine the appropriate rating curve in the normal way. If the spectrum of
frequencies below 125Hz exceeds this rating curve, there is the potential for a
low frequency problem. The curves assess not only the level of the noise, but
also its spectrum balance. A penalty of 3dB was suggested for a noise which
was fluctuating. The LFNR curves have not been widely adopted, but it is
known that they have been used by some UK local authorities.
15.4 Low frequency A-weighting. Another approach to low frequency limits
(Vercammen, 1989; Vercammen, 1992) uses a reference curve related to the
average threshold minus two standard deviations. Vercammen also suggests
using the G-weighting for infrasound, an A-weighting of the range 10Hz to
160Hz (LFA) for low frequencies and the normal A-weighting for higher
frequencies. The following are proposed as typical interior criterion levels.
Measurement Day Evening Night
LA 35 30 25 dBA
LG 86 86 86 dBG
LFA 30 25 20 dBA
10 10 100 1000
ure 24. Low fre
noise ratin
curves LFNR.
Each point is at a third octave frequency.
It is not possible to make a direct measurement of LFA by filtering the input to a
sound level meter, as the specification of low frequency A-weighting permits
wide tolerances. Consequently, third octave band levels are taken from 10Hz
to 160Hz and summed for their A-weighting. Vercammen also notes the
problems of assessing fluctuations in noise level.
15.5 National Criteria. The interest in criteria for low frequency noise and pressure
from complainants, who have felt badly served by the regulatory authorities,
has led to a number of countries developing criteria for assessment of low
frequency noise problems. The criteria are summarised below:
15.5.1 Sweden. Recommendations for assessment of indoor low frequency noise
(Socialstyrelsen-Sweden, 1996) are shown in the Criterion column of Table 6,
which also includes the ISO 226 threshold. It is clearly the intention that the
lowest frequencies shall not be audible to the average person. However,
measurements are of the equivalent noise level (averaged over time) in the
third octave band, so missing some of the annoying characteristics of a noise –
fluctuations, rumble etc. The averaged level is appropriate to a steady tone, but
has limitations for other noises. In the application of this method, the noise may
be considered a nuisance if its level exceeds the criterion curve in any third
octave band.
Frequency 1/3 octave band
ISO 226 threshold
31.5 56 56.3
40 49 48.4
50 43 41.7
63 41.5 35.5
80 40 29.8
100 38 25.1
125 36 20.7
160 34 16.8
200 32 13.8
Table 6. Swedish limits for low frequency noise
15.5.2 Netherlands. This method, which is intended to determine audibility is based
on the average low frequency hearing thresholds for an otologically unselected
population aged 50 – 60 years, where the reference levels are the binaural
hearing threshold for 10% of the population. That is, the 10% most sensitive.
The age range of 50 - 60 years was chosen as typical of the age of
complainants. (N S G, 1999; van den Berg and Passchier-Vermeer, 1999a).
Comparing 50% levels for 50 – 60 year olds with those of young persons,
Table 7 shows that the older people are taken as 7dB less sensitive, on
average, than the younger ones. At the 10% level they are 3dB less sensitive.
Information is not given on whether, at lower percentage levels e.g. 5% or 1%,
this difference reduces further. The 10% curve is used by considering noise
levels exceeding those in the NSG reference curve in the range 20Hz to
100Hz, in order to draw conclusions on their audibility.
The above method is for audibility, not annoyance. A Dutch proposal for
annoyance (Sloven, 2001) uses a criterion curve which is close to the German
threshold below 40Hz and then corresponds with the Swedish method.
15.5.3 Denmark. This method is similar to a proposal of Vercammen, above, in that
the G-weighted levels, the A-weighted levels in the 10Hz to 160Hz third octave
bands and the normal A-weighting are used (Jakobsen, 2001). Criteria are
then as in Table 8 for internal noise levels.
Low frequency hearing threshold for
levels for 50% and 10% of the
(NSG reference curve in bold)
Otologically Otologically
Unselected Selected
Population Young adults
50 – 60 years (ISO 226)
10 103 92 96 89
12.5 99 88 92 85
16 95 84 88 81
20 85 74 78 71
25 75 64 66 59
31.5 66 55 59 52
40 58 46 51 43
50 51 39 44 36
63 45 33 38 30
80 39 27 32 24
100 34 22 27 19
125 29 18 22 15
160 25 14 18 11
200 22 10 15 7
Table 7. NSG reference curve
Infrasound LpG Low frequency
noise LpA,LF
Normal noise
limit LpA
Dwelling, evening
and night
30dB / 25dB
Dwelling, day
30dB – day and
Classroom, office
Other rooms in
Table 8. Danish recommendations
The levels in Table 8 for infrasound are intended to make the G-weighted noise
inaudible, being set at 10dB below the G-weighting for the average threshold.
There is conjunction at about 16Hz between 85dBG and 20dBA, as shown in
Figure. 6 (Section 4.1.1). In the operation of the limits, the noise is measured
over a 10 minute period and a 5dB penalty added for impulsive noise e.g.
single blows from a press or drop forge hammer. Rumble or similar fluctuation
characteristics are not considered and will be averaged out in the 10 minute
measurement period.
15.5.4 Germany. This method (DIN:45680, 1997), is based on investigations in the
region of industrial installations (Piorr and Wietlake, 1990). Hearing threshold
levels used in DIN 45680 are given in Table 9, showing that the thresholds are
close to those of ISO 226. The difference (dBC - dBA) > 20dB is used as an
initial indication of the presence of low frequency noise. The noise is then
measured in third octaves over specified time periods and compared with the
threshold curve in Table 9. The main frequency range is from 10Hz to 80Hz.
Frequencies of 8Hz and 100Hz are used only if the noise has many
components within the range 10Hz to 80Hz. However, there is an assumption
in DIN 45680 that the great majority of low frequency noise problems from
industrial sources are tonal and that 8Hz and 100Hz third octave bands will be
used only rarely. If the level in a particular third octave band is 5 dB or more
above the level in the two neighbouring bands, the noise is described as tonal.
For tonal noises, the level of the tone above the hearing threshold is found.
The day time limit for exceedance of the threshold curve is 5dB in the 8Hz –
63Hz bands, 10dB in the 80Hz band, and 15dB in the100Hz band. In the night
period all the limits are reduced by 5dB.
Third octave band
frequency Hz
Hearing threshold
ISO 226 threshold
(8) (103) --
10 95 --
12.5 87 --
16 79 --
20 71 74.3
25 63 65.0
31.5 55.5 56.3
40 48 48.4
50 40.5 41.7
63 33.5 35.5
80 28 29.8
(100) (23.5) 25.1
Table 9. Hearing threshold DIN 45680
For non-tonal noises, the limit for the A-weighted equivalent level (10 Hz – 80
Hz) is 35 dB during daytime and 25 dB during the night, where the A-weighting
is obtained by using only the third octave bands which exceed the hearing
threshold. Contributions from levels below the threshold are disregarded.
15.5.5 Poland. This method (Mirowska, 2001) uses the frequency range 10Hz to
250Hz. The sound pressure levels of the third octave bands of the noise are
compared with a reference curve LA10, derived from LA10 = 10 - kA, where kA is
the value of the A-weighting for the centre frequencies of the third octave
bands and is negative over the low frequency region. Thus, the L A10 curve is
10dB greater than the absolute value of the A-weighting corrections and any
single frequency which met the curve will have a level of 10dBA. The curve is
shown in Table 10 where it is compared with the ISO 226 threshold. The
reference curve is below the ISO 226 threshold at the lower frequencies.
Frequency Hz LA10 dB ISO 226 dB
10 80.4
12.5 83.4
16 66.7
20 60.5 74.3
25 54.7 65.0
31.5 49.3 56.3
40 44.6 48.4
50 40.2 41.7
63 36.2 35.5
80 32.5 29.8
100 29.1 25.1
125 26.1 20.7
160 23.4 16.8
200 20.9 13.8
250 18.6 11.2
Table 10. Polish reference levels LA10.
The Polish method also takes background noise into account by determining
the difference between the sound pressure levels of the noise and the
background noise. Consequently there are two components in the assessment:
L1 - the difference between the measured sound pressure level and
the LA10 curve.
L2 - the difference between the sound pressure levels of the noise and
the background noise.
The noise is considered to be annoying when:
L1 > 0
L2 > 10dB for tonal noise or 6dB for broadband noise
15.6 Comparison of methods.
15.6.1 Criterion curves. The National assessment methods compare the low
frequency hearing threshold, or a function related to it, with the problem noise.
Where A-weighting is used, there is an assumption that this weighting reflects
hearing sensitivity at low frequencies. However, as the A-weighting is loosely
based on what was considered to be the 40 phon loudness contour in the mid
1930's, it has a lower slope than the threshold. Figure 6 shows how the 20dBA
curve crosses the threshold at about 30Hz, where the 20dBA curve denotes
the levels of tones which will individually register as 20dBA. The reference
curves are compared in Table 11. Poland requires the lowest levels and is
10dB lower than Denmark, since one is based on 10dBA and the other on
20dBA. The Netherlands and Germany use an assumed hearing threshold as
their reference. Sweden describes a limiting noise curve, which should not be
exceeded in any band. This curve is similar to ISO 226 between 31.5Hz and
50Hz, beyond which it tends towards 20dBA.
None of the methods assesses fluctuations, although Denmark imposes a
penalty for impulses. The methods are generally designed for assessment of
steady tones, but will underrate the subjective consequences of fluctuations,
which are the main complaint of many sufferers.
Poland Germany Netherland
Sweden ISO 226
y Hz
LA10 dB DIN 45680
20dBA dB dB
8 103
10 80.4 95 90.4
12.5 83.4 87 93.4
16 66.7 79 76.7
20 60.5 71 74 70.5 74.3
25 54.7 63 64 64.7 65.0
31.5 49.3 55.5 55 59.4 56 56.3
40 44.6 48 46 54.6 49 48.4
50 40.2 40.5 39 50.2 43 41.7
63 36.2 33.5 33 46.2 41.5 35.5
80 32.5 28 27 42.5 40 29.8
100 29.1 23.5 22 39.1 38 25.1
125 26.1 36.1 36 20.7
160 23.4 33.4 34 16.8
200 20.9 32 13.8
250 18.6 11.2
Table 11. Comparison of reference curves.
15.6.2 Measurement positions. A-weighted levels for assessment of environmental
noise are normally taken outside a residential property. The complexities of low
frequency noise, including uncertainties in the transmission loss of the
structure and resonances within rooms, require low frequency noise to be
assessed by internal measurements. This is recognised in the assessment
There is a measurement uncertainty, which is inversely proportional to both the
bandwidth of the analysis and to the duration of the measurement (i.e. the
integration time). As a result, the measurement period using a given third
octave filter is related to the required accuracy. If the standard deviation of
repeated measurements shall be less then 0.2 dB an integration time of almost
five minutes is needed at 10 Hz. At 40 Hz a one-minute integration time is
necessary and at 1000 Hz two seconds are needed. The noise signal is
assumed to be stable over the measurement time, but this is not always so in
16. Validation of the Methods
Piorr and Wietlake (1990) used a night reference curve identical to DIN 45680
up to 63Hz. They reported that 90% of complainants were satisfied with the
implementation of the limits. Subsequently, Piorr and Wietlake's night criterion
was applied to investigations in the UK (Rushforth et al., 2002) and found to be
a "reasonably good predictor of annoyance".
Laboratory measurements using recordings of actual noises (Poulsen, 2002;
Poulsen and Mortensen, 2002) have been used to compare the effectiveness
of proposed national assessment methods for low frequency noise limits. The
noise examples are shown in Table 12.
No. Name Description Tones, characteristics
1 Traffic Road traffic noise from a
None – broadband,
2 Drop forge Isolated blows from a drop forge
transmitted through the ground
None – deep, impulsive
3 Gas turbine Gas motor in a CHP plant
25 Hz, continuous
4 Fast ferry High speed ferry; pulsating tonal
57 Hz, pass-by
5 Steel factory Distant noise from a steel rolling
62 Hz, continuous
6 Generator Generator 75 Hz, continuous
7 Cooling Cooling compressor (48 Hz, 95 Hz) 98 Hz,
8 Discotheque Music, transmitted through a
None, fluctuating, loud
Table 12. Comparison of test noises.
Noise no. 1 is from a busy six-lane highway and it is almost continuous. Noise
no. 2 consists of a series of very deep, rumbling single blows from a drop
forge. Noises 3, 4, 5, and 6 each have one tonal component. Noise no. 7 has
three tones but two of them are at a low level, and noise no. 8 has a
characteristic rhythmical pulsating sound. The noises were selected to
represent typical low frequency noise known to cause complaints. All noises
had a clear low frequency character.
The noises were presented to 18 otologically normal young listeners in two
minute durations and at levels of 20 dB, 27.5 dB, and 35 dB LAeq , in simulated
indoor conditions. A special group of four older people (41 – 57 years old), who
were known to be disturbed by low frequency noise, were also tested with the
same noises. The subjects made annoyance judgements depending on
assumed circumstances, such as day, evening and night. For example, Table
13 gives the night annoyance for the main group on a numerical scale, where 0
is not annoying and 10 is very annoying.
20 dB
27.5 dB
35 dB
Noise example
Traffic noise 1.6 3.4 5.2
Drop forge 4.3 5.9 6.9
Gas turbine 0.9 2.5 5.2
Fast ferry 0.9 3.2 5.4
Steel factory 1.0 2.7 4.9
Generator 1.7 3.2 5.0
2.7 4.4 6.0
Discotheque 3.0 5.4 6.7
Table 13. Subjective assessment of the annoyance, main group - if the
noise was heard at night.
The special group were more annoyed by the noise as shown in Table 14.
20 dB
27.5 dB
35 dB
Noise example
Traffic noise 4.7 7.2 8.5
Drop forge 7.5 8.3 8.9
Gas turbine 5.0 8.1 9.8
Fast ferry 6.6 8.8 9.3
Steel factory 5.8 8.2 9.3
Generator 8.4 8.3 9.0
7.4 8.5 9.1
Discotheque 6.0 7.9 8.6
Table 14. Subjective assessment of the annoyance, sensitive group -
if the noise was heard at night.
The special group judged noises differently from the main group, as shown in
Table 15. Here it is seen that the special group found all noises more annoying
than the main group did, but that they were most annoyed by the type of noises
they complained about, perhaps indicating conditioning.
Ref Group order Average scaling Special group order Average scaling
Drop forge 5.1 Generator 7.3
Discotheque 4.6 Cooling compressor 7.2
Cooling compressor 4.1 Drop forge 7.0
Generator 3.1 Gas turbine 6.9
Traffic noise 3.0 Fast ferry 6.9
Fast ferry 2.9 Steel factory 6.8
Steel factory 2.7 Discotheque 6.2
Gas turbine 2.7 Traffic noise 5.6
Average 3.5 Average 6.7
Table 15. Comparison of group noise ordering.
These subjective evaluations were then compared with the objective methods
in the National procedures as shown in Table 16. It is seen that the Danish
method gives best correlation with subjective evaluation, but this depends on
the 5dB penalty for impulsive sounds. Without this penalty, it is similar to the
German and Swedish methods.
coefficient, ρ
Danish 0.94
German non-tonal 0.73
German tonal 0.72
Swedish 0.76
Polish 0.71
Dutch proposal 0.64
C-level 0.66
Table 16 . Overview of the results from regression analysis of the relation
between the subjective evaluations and the different objective
assessment methods.
For the noises used, which are typical of low frequency noises, the
infringement of the criterion curves is by a single frequency band. Only the
band where the maximum excess occurs is taken into account and the excess
at other frequency bands is neglected. It is seen from the comparison of the
criteria in Table 11 that the curves diverge above about 40Hz, with the result
that, at 100Hz, the German limit is about 15dB below the Swedish and Danish
limits. Thus the different criteria will give different outcomes if the infringement
is at frequencies above 40Hz.
17. Further Research
The preceding sections have shown that there are a number of gaps in our
knowledge of low frequency noise. We do know that problems arise fairly
widely, and on an international scale. A great deal of distress is caused to a
limited number of people, who are unfortunate to be classified as "sufferers",
although suffering is an apt description of the effects on them. It is no longer
necessary to "make a case" for work on low frequency noise, but the direction
of the work should be chosen to maximise benefit to the sufferers. There are
two main areas to be addressed:
Assessment of the noise
Development of personal coping strategies.
Assessment assumes that there is a measurable noise.
Enhanced coping strategies are required:
During the time delay between occurrence of a noise and its control
If the noise cannot be located.
If the noise cannot be measured
17.1 Assessment. A not uncommon occurrence is that there is clearly a low
frequency noise present at a complaint location, but existing UK assessment
methods are not able to determine its nuisance value, leading to the conclusion
of "Not a Statutory Nuisance". Section 15 has outlined the assessment
methods of other countries, which are able to draw positive conclusions on
noises that would fail an A-weighting test. Further work should be carried out
on assessment of low frequency noises, building on what is already known.
17.1.1 Noises. A number of noises, which are known to be causing low frequency
problems, could be analysed and assessed by existing low frequency noise
assessment methods. Calibrated tape recordings would be made of the noises,
so that time variations could be evaluated. An attempt would also be made to
determine an "annoyance rating" for the complainant. This would be through
questioning and discussion in order to evaluate both the level of annoyance
and the personality of the complainant.
The interdependence of spectra, fluctuations and complainant characteristics
would be used to develop an assessment method that is more reliable than
existing methods.
17.1.2 Benefits. The work would provide a means of assessing low frequency noises,
for piloting by Environmental Health Officers and ultimately included in national
17.2 Coping strategies. Some Hum sufferers report that they have been able to
adopt strategies which ease the effects on them of their noise of unknown
origin. In a few cases a complete "cure" has been achieved. An element of the
strategy is to stop fighting the noise and relax one's physical and mental
responses to it. There is a great deal to be learned from the methods of tinnitus
management, which have developed over the past 20 years. This is not to
imply that those low frequency noises which cannot be sourced are actually
tinnitus, but that the experiences are similar; the complainant hears a noise
that elicits a negative reaction. The research on coping strategies could evolve
in the following way:
Consult with former sufferers who have accommodated to their noise,
in order to learn from their strategies
In parallel with this consult with tinnitus management specialists on
their techniques.
Recommend strategies for management of low frequency noise
Carry out field studies of management of low frequency noise. Where
necessary co-operate with social services and GP.
Follow up later to assess the results.
Develop a training programme for EHO's and personal advice for
17.2.2 Benefits. The work has the potential to improve the quality of life of
complainants, reduce the level of complaints of noise and also reduce the
demands on environmental, social and health services. It will reduce the extent
to which low frequency noise complaints become stuck in the system, as many
do at present, with costly and damaging results.
References 1
ACGIH (2001): Documentation on the threshold limit values for physical agents. 7th
Adam, R. (1999): Subjective response to low frequency noise, PhD, South Bank
University, London.
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