Author: Dr. Chris Herget, Audiologist – NYC Hearing and Balance
New York City is known for a lot of things; the Empire State Building, Times Square, the New York Times, the Yankees, etc. But one element of the city has gained a reputation throughout each borough since the early 1950’s. And no, it isn’t the smell. It is subway noise.
As steel train cars break along steel tracks, they create a screeching halt at each of the 468 stops. Loud noise is the inevitable result. Located at one of the Times Square subway stops, and with a dosimeter in hand, a local news crew from AM New York and I waited just behind the designated yellow line as a train passed. As the train passed at near full speed, the dosimeter began spitting out numbers in real time. Peaking at 95 decibels, (higher than 85dB, the recommended cutoff for safe listening levels according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health), the train quickly comes to a stop, letting people on and off, on its way to its next destination. Even though most of the riders did not consciously notice the loud noise coming from the train, their ears did! Our ears cannot “turn off” or decrease the input of auditory stimuli (like our eyes can with our eyelids and light), so our ears are constantly working 24 hours a day. Because of this, noise-induced hearing loss is common when protection is not used.
After measuring several Times Square stops (each measuring between 92-100dB), the news crew and I walked over to Union Square, a popular subway terminal also known as one of the loudest. With seven train lines passing through that station at any one time, I can see (and hear) why it is considered the loudest. Just as before, I waited behind the designated safety area for a train to pass. As it did, the dB level on the dosimeter grew larger, peaking at 102dB for a solid few seconds. At this dB level, hearing damage can start in less than 10 minutes with constant exposure. Although the exposure time when listening to a train isn’t anywhere close to 10 minutes, studies have shown that many short exposures over time, even seconds, can cause permanent hearing damage.
For as long as there have been humans walking this earth, there has been noise exposure. There are only a handful of natural sounds that create noise loud enough sound to cause hearing loss, including volcanoes erupting and howler monkeys mating. Most, if not all modern noise-induced hearing loss causes stem from man made circumstances, traveling notwithstanding. If you live in New York, or any city with loud subways or traffic, your ears are being exposed to unsafe levels of noise. And the quicker you act on it (by conserving your hearing by wearing hearing protection) the better off you will be when you are older. Hearing loss does not improve and more than likely will get worse the longer you ignore it. Like wearing sun glasses to protect your eyes and vision, wearing hearing protection in a loud environment will only benefit you in the long run.
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