Silence is golden
Researcher, audiologist and "pragmatic activist," Tony Leroux seeks calm in a sea of noise
When Tony Leroux was a teenager, a Université de Montréal professor conducted a research project on noise in the factory where his father worked. Since his father had developed a form of occupational deafness, Tony was interested in audiologist Raymond Hétu's work. Meeting this pioneer in the study of noise-induced hearing loss was a turning point in Tony's life.
Today, Tony Leroux is a professor in the school of orthophony and audiology at Université de Montréal, and he launched the first reference-type website about noise in Quebec. Dr. Leroux, who conducts studies for a number of organizations and is participating in the development of a national policy on noise, doesn't shy away form making his views known on issues he considers important. "Whether it has to do with my research on noise or on the neurophysiology of hearing, it's important that my work have an impact," says Dr. Leroux.
As it turns out, the researcher's work has been making a real impact since he was a master's student. Building on previous epidemiological studies, his master's research on animal models demonstrated that noise penetrates the uterine wall and amniotic fluid to affect the fetus. In Quebec, this discovery led to a policy of preventive leave for pregnant women working in noisy environments, as of their twentieth week.
"Tony incorporates a social dimension in all of his research," states Jean-Pierre Gagné, a professor in the same department, who was chair when Dr. Leroux was hired. "This holds true for all aspects of his professional life, from research to teaching."
In the classroom, Dr. Leroux believes that future audiologists must have strong science training, but also they must be able to express, "in simple terms, all of the concepts they will have to juggle in their professional lives." True to his word, Dr. Leroux worked with his master's students to design a website devoted to noise and hearing (www.bruitsociete.org). Before any information is posted on this site, his students must review the scientific literature to identify relevant information, validate it, make a scientific presentation before their peers and prepare a "popular" version for posting on the site, which provides information to the general public as well as to health professionals.
"In terms of teaching, Professor Leroux stands out because of his professional training, having worked as an audiologist," says Dr. Gagné. "The students really like him because of his attitude, teaching philosophy and pedagogical approach." Indeed, in 2006, Dr. Leroux was awarded a prize for excellence in teaching from U de M.
A question of public health
Dr. Leroux's interests - while rooted in audiology - are many and varied. While working on his bachelor's degree with a specialization in audiology, he studied linguistics, language acquisition and brain function. He then completed a master's degree in biomedical sciences at U de M, followed by a few years of clinical practice before starting a doctorate in psychology in the field of hearing psychophysics, this time at Carleton University. His doctoral research focused on stroke-induced hearing problems. He taught in the audiology and orthophony program at the University of Ottawa, and still works with former colleagues in Ottawa on research projects dealing with fatal workplace accidents linked to noisy environments.
"Noise is invisible; we often say it can't kill, but that's not true," states Dr. Leroux. "In the last decade, we recorded 20 to 30 fatal accidents caused by noise." Most often, these incidents were caused by high levels of ambient noise that blocked out the back-up warning alarm on vehicles; accidents happen because the victims do not hear the approaching vehicles.
Noise also causes all kinds of other problems. Dr. Leroux, who taught French as a second language in a school in Montreal, remembers that in the morning, he would have to stop talking every five minutes due to the noise of airplanes passing overhead. In addition to hearing problems, these practices cause concentration problems for young people. Research shows that children attending schools close to airports have lower grades than their counterparts who study in more peaceful settings.
"Pragmatic activist" is how Dr. Leroux describes himself. "We can't demand that the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport in Montreal be closed; that doesn't make economic sense. But couldn't we, for example, create a program to provide better sound insulation in schools and residential buildings located close to the airport?"
Among his many recommendations, he suggests a simple solution to noisy all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles: replace their two-stroke engines with four-stroke engines, which are quieter and less polluting. Off-road trails also need to be rerouted away from residential areas.
A culture of noise
Organizations and government departments often call on Dr. Leroux and his team to find concrete solutions to noise-related problems. For example, Dr. Leroux is a member of a multidisciplinary team for a pilot project in a residential neighbourhood located along a highway that requires major construction work.
He focused his attention on the type of sound, broadcast through speakers installed on streetlamps, that would best block out the construction noise. Of the dozen sounds proposed (waterfall, wind, rain, frogs, etc.), residents opted for the sound of the ocean, even though the silence between waves was less effective in filtering the noisy comings and goings of trucks. "The people in the neighbourhood told us that they sat on their balconies to listen to the sound of the waves!" recalls Pierre André, a professor of geography at U de M who collaborates with Dr. Leroux.
Dr. Leroux points out that cultural factors must be taken into account when analyzing our relationship to noise. People who have lived for years in a noisy environment get used to it and are even able to sleep through the racket of a freight train passing just metres from their beds. (The quality of their sleep is nevertheless affected.) He also notes that in public parks in South Korea, speakers hidden in the trees and bushes continuously broadcast traditional Korean music. He laughs at the thought of how Canadians would react to a similar situation.
On another note, Dr. Leroux is surprised by young people's apparent avoidance of silence. Whether they are sitting in a car, doing their homework, reading, or chatting online, most teens seem to feel the need to crank up the volume of their music or televisions. Given that noise is often a signal of danger, this raises the question: Have our youth developed a dependence on adrenaline, the "fight or flight" hormone that's secreted when a creature feels threatened? Or is it possible that teens associate silence with death? Dr. Leroux looks forward to exploring these questions in the future.
"I would also like to discuss silence, a value that is disappearing in our society, but is rich in information. Author and playwright Michel Tremblay once wrote: 'Can't you hear the roar of my silence?' I love that sentiment - it's had a big impact on me," says Dr. Leroux.