Coronavirus spread: Singing is no riskier than talking, scientists find
- Singing doesn't produce more respiratory droplets and aerosols than talking
- This is according to a new study, which adds that it depends on how loud the singing is
- These findings may have implications for live indoor performances
Earlier research has shown that breathing and talking, and coughing release tiny (aerosolised) particles carrying SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
In a new study, surprising findings reveal that singing is no more likely to spread infected aerosols and respiratory droplets than speaking at a similar volume.
The research, which has been supported by Public Health England and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, was carried out by a collaborative team of 13 researchers from Imperial College London, the University of Bristol and Royal Brompton Hospital.
The results of the project, called "Perform", is the first of their kind and have been published on preprint server ChemRxiv. It has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal.
Measuring the spread
To measure the amount of aerosols and droplets expelled by a group of 25 professional performers, an orthopaedic operating theatre – an environment of “zero aerosol background” – was used.
This allowed researchers to correctly quantify the aerosol and droplets without confusing them with large numbers of ambient particles in the environment.
The performers completed several exercises, including speaking, breathing, singing, and coughing. Part of the test included the same participants singing and speaking the words to "Happy Birthday" between the decibel ranges of 50–60, 70–80 and 90–100 dB.
When the aerosol mass was measured, the research team found that there was a steep rise that came with an increase in the volume of the singing and speaking. According to the authors, singing does not, however, produce substantially more aerosol than speaking at a similar volume.
More than this, no significant differences in aerosol production were found between genders, as well as different genres, such as opera, jazz, gospel, and pop.
Do findings support reopening of live musical performances?
Based on their findings, the researchers believe that this could help allow live musical performances to resume during the pandemic.
Musical organisations could consider treating speaking and singing equally, they said, with more attention focused on the following:
- The volume at which the vocalisation occurs
- The number of participants (source strength)
- The type of room in which the activity occurs (i.e. air exchange rate),
- The duration of the rehearsal and period over which performers are vocalising
“Our research has provided a rigorous scientific basis for Covid-19 recommendations for arts venues to operate safely for both the performers and audience by ensuring that spaces are appropriately ventilated to reduce the risk of airborne transmission,” said Jonathan Reid, Director of ESPRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Aerosol Science and Professor of Physical Chemistry in the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol, and study co-author.
Declan Costello, a consultant ear, nose and throat surgeon specialising in voice disorders at Wexham Park Hospital, and co-author of the paper, also commented:
“This research will give useful information to performers, venues and arts organisations about how they can reintroduce singing performances.”
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Image: Getty/Prasert Krainukul