Yes, nothing like the threat of complete hearing loss to bring home the importance of protecting one’s ears. Let’s hope that AC/DC considers the damage inflicted on concert goers when they resume touring.
Daniel Fink, M.D., Interim Chair of the Quiet Communities Health Advisory Council, has written a post for the Quiet Communities’s blog that tackles a question which is rarely addressed: What noise level IS safe for preventing hearing loss?
In his post, Dr. Fink discusses the seeming contradiction between a 1974 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determination that “a 24-hour average noise exposure level of 70 decibels (dB) or less prevent[s] measurable hearing loss over a lifetime” with statements from various governmental and nonprofit organizations that suggested that “a much louder noise level − anything up to 85 dB − was safe for our ears.” In the course of researching the issue, he received a communication from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) that explained where the 85 dB figure came from; the information in that communication formed the basis of a post on NIOSH’s Science Blog in February 2016 (which is discussed here).
Long and short, the NIOSH communication explained that the 85 dB was an occupational noise exposure standard developed to protect workers over a lifetime of work, whereas the EPA determination of 70 dB averaged noise exposure over 24 hours was believed to protect the general public from hearing loss over a lifetime. As Dr. Fink notes that the clarification of the difference in noise exposure limits is important in setting public policy and protecting public health, and he concludes that, based on his research, “[t]he much lower 70 dB average noise exposure level is the only published safe noise level to protect the public’s hearing.”
In “Turn It Down,” Dangerstoppers (Beverly Hills Television) highlights the dangers of noise exposure and its adverse effect on hearing. The video is very good at informing viewers about dangerous levels of sound and provides tips on how one can limit his or her exposure to noise pollution. Included in this important piece is Dr. Daniel Fink’s segment on ear plug options for hearing protection.
Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the video link. Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.
I’ve been doing a little internet research to see if there is a consensus as to what is considered a reasonable decibel range for normal conversation (i.e., no straining to be heard) and, more importantly, what decibel ranges put the listener at risk for injury. The Mayo Clinic says that normal conversation reads at 60 decibels. Webmd and The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASLHA) agree. But I’m finding that 60 decibels simply does not happen in a public space, restaurant, or store, certainly not in New York City. I know that New York City (or, at least, Manhattan) is busier and louder than most American cities and towns, but even in quieter places there is going to be a base level hum. In Manhattan that hum is the sound of lots of feet pounding the pavement, sirens (far away and nearby), beeping horns and other street noise, bursts of laughter, etc. Fortunately it appears that there is little or no risk of hearing injury if the decibel is reading does not pass 80. The Mayo Clinic starts the risk range at 80 decibels (“Heavy city traffic, power lawn mower”), while Webmd states that decibel readings above 85 are harmful. The AHSLA doesn’t identify the exact decibel range where injury can occur, but notes that noise levels are dangerous if:
- You must raise your voice to be heard.
- You can’t hear someone 3 feet away from you.
- Speech around you sounds muffled or dull after you leave the noisy area.
- You have pain or ringing in your ears (this is called “tinnitus”) after exposure to noise.
I’ve recently downloaded Faber Acoustical’s SoundMeter for my iPad mini and began checking the decibel reading of a variety of spaces to see if I could determine what decibel range is comfortable for me and what decibel reading signals the point where I begin to feel uneasy or irritable. Long and short, anything up to 75 decibels is usually tolerable, but once 75 decibels is breached things change. And if the noise level crosses 80 decibels, I reach for my musician’s ear plugs (they reduce sound by 25 decibels) or go from annoyed to very irritable quickly. Very occasionally pain may follow. Of course, the quality of the sound also plays a role, as I find that higher pitched, trebly sounds causes me to feel uneasy at lower decibel levels. The reason for my inquiry will be clearer in the next post where I describe the guide that I am creating which aims to identify those comfortable, ear-friendly spaces that exist throughout the city.
Do you ever wonder why restaurants are so loud? Don’t assume it’s due to poor design, because it may be deliberate. Peggy Hernandez, writing for the Boston Globe, found that for some restaurant owners, striking the right noise level is key. But while she found some restaurant owners who were addressing unnecessary noise by installing professional soundproofing, others, “aiming for a lively atmosphere,” actively encouraged the party atmosphere. “We wanted bustling energy, conviviality, and a party feel,” says Tony Maws, chef and owner of The Kirkland Tap & Trotter, in Somerville.” Based on my experience, Maws is not alone, But it seems odd that a restaurant owner would deliberately maintain a loud space when you consider that, “[t]he 2014 Zagat Boston Restaurants Survey found restaurant noise level to be the number-one irritatant about dining out.” The Zagats survey added that “[o]ver 70 percent of those surveyed avoid restaurants that are too loud…[with] similar results in New York City.” So why would restauranteurs turn up the volume, or ignore it, when noise level is a common complaint?
Cara Buckley, writing for the New York Times on Indoor noise in New York restaurants and retail stores, reported that “[s]ome customers like the loudness. Younger people can withstand loud music longer, while older ones may run from it, helping proprietors maintain a youthful clientele and a fresh image.” Further, “[s]ome research has shown that people drink more when music is loud; one study found that people chewed faster when tempos were sped up.” So to maintain a “fresh image” or make a few more dollars, some restaurant owners deliberately expose their customers and employees to damaging loud noise. The damage is not limited to hyperacusis, tinnitus, or hearing loss, as the article notes, “repeated exposure to loud noise often damages hearing and has been linked to higher levels of stress, hypertension and heart disease.”
The article includes three paragraphs that highlight the problem facing those of us who want restaurants and other spaces to lower the volume. Namely, there are customers who enjoy the din:
Recent changes in restaurant design have also increased sound levels. The trend of making restaurants look like brasseries and bars to resemble speakeasies has bred an abundance of hard surfaces that can reflect and amplify sound: ceramic tiles, concrete floors and tin ceilings. This despite the fact that one of the biggest customer complaints about restaurants, according to Zagat, is noise. Yet those who like noisy places said they were energizing and gave them a sense that they were where it’s at.
Maria Vasquez, 22, a design student who spends time at Lavo — home to the 96 decibel levels and migraine-afflicted waitress — said she found the cacophony there fun. Tiffany Trifilio, 26, a fashion analyst who frequents the Standard Hotel’s Biergarten, said the din made her feel part of the crowd. And Katherine Gold, 35, who often stays at home with her baby, reveled in Lavo’s noise one recent night. “I spend my days in my apartment and at Central Park,” she said. “I have enough quiet.”
Patrons of spin classes also said the din was part of the draw. The pounding music helped them forget they were exercising, they said, and made them feel they were reliving the club days of younger years.
Loud music is fun and invigorating for some. Sadly, by the time the young women in the NY Times story begin to experience hearing loss, or go home one night with ringing in their ears that never goes away, it may be too late to do anything about it.
One way to stop this madness is to offer incentives to responsible business owners who monitor sound levels. And there is no bigger incentive than knowing that attention to this one detail can drive more foot traffic through their doors. To that end, keep an eye on this space. In the next few months we will be posting reviews of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, parks, and other places around Manhattan where the focus will be on sound quality. Food quality, service, and other factors are obviously important considerations when picking a restaurant, for example, but we will not be posting typical reviews. Rather, at most each review will include a brief description about the quality of the food, drink, or goods offered, decor, and service of each reveiwed place, but the emphasis will be on a simple standard: can you have a conversation in the space without raising your voice. Over time, we hope to have a map that offers many options for those seeking reasonably quiet spaces in every neighborhood in Manhattan.
Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the article links. Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.
New York Times Health blogger, Nicholas Bakalar, posted a piece on a report by British researchers that suggested that “[c]ontinual exposure to traffic noise may increase the risk for cardiovascular disease.” The study, published in The European Heart Journal, noted that, as compared with average noise levels below 55 decibels, “levels above 60 decibels were associated with higher rates of hospital admissions for stroke — 5 percent higher among people 25 to 74 and about 9 percent higher among those over 75. All-cause mortality was 4 percent higher for people in noisy neighborhoods.”
As Bakalar notes, 60 decibels is not especially loud as it “is much quieter than most urban environments and many indoor public places like popular restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and sports arenas.” The researchers suggest that the cumulative effect of constant noise over years could be significant.
If you have a sound meter on your smart phone, load it up when you are at a restaurant, theater, or gym and look at the decibel level. My guess is that if most people did this just to get a sense of the normal sound levels they are continually exposed to, they would be stunned.
Research into the affect of noise on health is at the nascent stage, so more attention and funding has to be directed to this emerging and important field of study. One hopes that once there is some consensus regarding the ill effects of noise on health, that businesses and political bodies will have no choice but to address it. After all, cities and suburbs are not getting any quieter.
Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the link. Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.
A couple of years ago I began to notice that I was quickly losing any ability to tolerate noise, particularly in restaurants. I had read that as we age we lose the ability to filter out extraneous sound, but what I was experiencing didn’t appear to be an ordinary reaction to noise. Many of my friends, like me, are middle-aged, and while noisy places might annoy them, they didn’t experience the irritability–or, occasionally, the pain–that I did. If I commented about a place being noisy my friends might agree, but they rarely commented about the sound level unless I pointed out that the space was particularly loud. For the last few years I felt edgy and uncomfortable in loud spaces and would actively look for restaurants that were relatively quiet or had quieter corners. One Sunday last year I met up with friends for brunch at an exceptionally noisy restaurant. I became so uncomfortable and irritable about the competing layers of noise that I knew I had to do something. First, I had to find out what was wrong.
I ran a few internet searches and came up with two possible answers: (1) hyper sensitive hearing and (2) hyperacusis. I knew that I had acute hearing from childhood–I routinely could hear things that others could not–so hyper sensitive hearing seemed like the logical answer. That said, although I was always sensitive to sound I didn’t used to find it irritating or sometimes painful. So I scheduled an appointment to see an otolaryngologist (ears, nose, and throat doctor or ENT) and have a hearing test. On the day of my appointment I got my answer: hyperacusis.
Hyperacusis, essentially, is an oversensitivity to certain frequencies and ranges of environmental sound that most people find to be normal. Severe hyperacusis is rare, but there is a “lesser version” that affects musicians. I was an amateur musician in high school and in my early 20s, and the symptoms I presented suggested that I had the lesser form. It turns out that the irritability I experienced in loud places, particularly restaurants, is typical. In fact, after my doctor told me that I had hyperacusis he added, “no, you aren’t neurotic.” I know why he said that. I had written off occasional ear pain and general grumpiness when in loud spaces, assuming that it was due to sensitive hearing, my general disdain for gratuitous noise, and, frankly, age. But I was wrong. And when I joined my friends for that brunch at the exceptionally loud restaurant, I knew that there was something more going on and that what I was experiencing wasn’t normal.
One reason why I didn’t immediately suspect that I had a hearing issue was due to luck: unlike a majority of people diagnosed with hyperacusis, I don’t have tinnitus. My case is relatively mild, which is a very good thing as there is limited treatment and, from what I’ve read, no cure. Rather, the only thing I can do is protect my hearing by limiting my exposure to damaging noise. My doctor advised me not to attend concerts where there are electric musical instruments, and he prescribed musicians’ ear plugs that reduce noise levels by 25 decibels. Taking affirmative action is particularly important as I live and work in New York City.
And so this blog has been created to catalog places in New York City that can be enjoyed quietly and without discomfort. My hope is that those of us who have hyperacusis or hyper sensitive hearing or who simply want to find a quiet place in the city to read, think, or have a conversation can share our finds and maybe raise some awareness about the daily assault on everyone’s ears. To that end, keep an eye on the map on the right, as it will be updated over time with public spaces, restaurants, bars, and retail spaces that are pockets of quiet in the city that never sleeps…or whispers.