Mechanistic hypotheses about airborne infectious disease transmission have traditionally emphasized the role of coughing and sneezing, which are dramatic expiratory events that yield both easily visible droplets and large quantities of particles too small to see by eye. Nonetheless, it has long been known that normal speech also yields large quantities of particles that are too small to see by eye, but are large enough to carry a variety of communicable respiratory pathogens. Here we show that the rate of particle emission during normal human speech is positively correlated with the loudness (amplitude) of vocalization, ranging from approximately 1 to 50 particles per second (0.06 to 3 particles per cm3) for low to high amplitudes, regardless of the language spoken (English, Spanish, Mandarin, or Arabic). Furthermore, a small fraction of individuals behaves as "speech superemitters," consistently releasing an order of magnitude more particles than their peers. Our data demonstrate that the phenomenon of speech superemission cannot be fully explained either by the phonic structures or the amplitude of the speech. These results suggest that other unknown physiological factors, varying dramatically among individuals, could affect the probability of respiratory infectious disease transmission, and also help explain the existence of superspreaders who are disproportionately responsible for outbreaks of airborne infectious disease.
Conflict of interest statement
The authors declare no competing interests.
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