Tag Archive: subway noise

London Underground noise could damage hearing

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Anyone who has ever taken the Underground (the subway, also known colloquially as the Tube) in London, as I have, knows that the trains there are noisy. Some lines date back to Victorian times, and on many lines the cars are decades old.

This report from the BBC documents how loud–greater than 105 decibels on many lines.

Transport for London, the quasi-governmental agency operating the Underground, downplays the risk. London Underground’s Nigel Holness said it monitored noise levels on the network and was investigating other ideas to “further reduce noise.” He added that, “[w]hile customers travelling on our network can experience noise, higher volumes tend to be for short periods of time and Health & Safety Executive guidance on noise suggests it is highly unlikely to cause any long-term damage to customers’ hearing.”

I would disagree.

The United Kingdom’s Health and Safety Executive, its equivalent of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, offers a “Noise Exposure Daily Reckoner” that allows workers, or in this case commuters using the Underground, to calculate their daily noise doses. Only 15 minutes at 105 decibels gives the exposed person a total daily noise dose of 90 decibels. That’s enough noise exposure to cause hearing loss over time. Those who spend an hour a day get the equivalent of a total daily noise dose of 96 decibels, which for sure will cause noise-induced hearing loss over time.

Many London commuters probably spend that much time each day in the Underground and in other trains or buses, maybe even more for those with long commutes.

And even strict adherence to recommended occupational noise exposure levels doesn’t protect all exposed workers from hearing loss.

Noise is different from other occupational exposures, e.g., ionizing radiation or toxic solvents, in that exposure continues outside work, all day long, all year long, for an entire life. I haven’t found a similar study for the UK, but Flamme et al. in the U.S. showed that 70% of adults in quiet Kalamazoo County, Michigan–where there is no Underground and the Subway is a fast-food restaurant chain–received total daily noise doses in excess of Environmental Protection Agency safe noise exposure levels. There is no reason to think that London is any quieter. I know from my personal observations in London, and from following reports from Pipedown about too-loud background music in the UK and from Action on Hearing Loss’s campaign for quieter restaurants, that noise exposure is certainly a problem there.

As Transport for London might say, “Mind the gap.” But in this case, the gap is going to be in its riders’ hearing.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

Meet New York City’s noise warriors,

who are fighting to keep the city quiet(er). Nicole Levy, writing for DNAInfo, introduces us to three New Yorkers who have been working to protect their fellow citizens’ health and well-being.  Levy first profiles Arline Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist, who published a widely cited, ground-breaking study on the effect of subway noise on children’s’ reading ability in 1975.  Today, Bronzaft volunteers her time with GrowNYC, where she takes on the hardest cases: people who have tried everything to stop noise but failed.  Bronzaft “asks the complainant to list all the steps he has taken to mitigate the offending noise, and writes to the apartment’s managing agent or landlord ‘on GrowNYC letterhead,’ she specified, presenting the case and inviting a discussion.”  “They listen,” says Levy, “because if any name in the anti-noise movement carries clout in New York City, it’s Arline Bronzaft.”

Levy next introduces us to Janet McEneaney, the president of Queens Quiet Skies, an advocacy group against aviation noise and pollution.  McEneaney became involved in fighting aviation noise when she awoke one morning in 2012 to the sound of roaring jets flying over her home every 60 seconds.  She learned that the noise was “an unintended consequence of a new air traffic control system, The Next Generation Air Transportation System.”  The noise persists, but McEneaney, on learning about the health consequences of noise, took her research to U.S. Congresswoman Grace Meng, who introduced the “Quiet Communities Act of 2015” last fall (the bill remains in committee).

Finally, Levy writes about Tae Hong Park, an associate professor of music composition and technology at NYU, who has created a project he calls Citygram that is  “an audio version of Google maps.”  The first phase of the Citygram project, in which sound recording technology runs on a web browser that anyone with internet connection can use, has been completed.  Park says that phase two will involve gathering information and analyzing patterns, followed by phase three, in which the whole process is automated “so machines can tell us the answers to what sounds are the loudest, what sounds disturb or concern the public the most.”

Reading about Bronzaft, McEneaney, and Park calls to mind this Margaret Mead quote:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Hey New Yorkers, as you prepare to return to work after this long holiday weekend, don’t forget to pack your earplugs:

NYC subway exposes commuters to noise as loud as a jet engine.

And for Metafilter’s take: But *everything* in New York is loud…. Thanks to Lisa Kothari for the link!

Finally, a word to the wise: the 4/5/6 platform at Union Square is the absolute worse.  When the trains are racing in it is absolutely deafening.  Proceed with caution.