October 25, 2006
New York Subway Harmful For Hearing
Think mass transit is just plain environmentally friendly? Not for your ears. Another reason why I'm glad I do not ride subways:
In a new survey of noise levels of the New York City transit system, researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health found that exposure to noise levels in subways have the potential to exceed recommended guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
According to the research, as little as 30 minutes of exposure to decibel levels measured in the New York City transit system per day has the potential to result in hearing loss. The findings have just been published in the September issue of the Journal of Urban Health, a publication of the New York Academy of Medicine.
"Noise exposure and noise-induced hearing loss is a global health problem of significant magnitude, especially in urban settings, yet published data are extremely limited," said Robyn Gershon, DrPH, professor of Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health and lead author of the study. Dr. Gershon and co-authors report that the findings suggest that, "Daily exposure to noise on subway platforms and subway cars has the potential to cause hearing loss. At the highest level obtained on the platform (106 decibels), the allowable limit under WHO and EPA is only 30 seconds. More than 1 in 10 of the platform measurements exceeded 100 decibels -- which translates into an allowable limit of only 1.5 minutes."
They recorded even higher noise levels in the subway cars.
Subway cars could be made quieter with sound-deadening materials. Though the materials would make the cars heavier and use more fuel. But how to make subway platforms quieter? Is the noise from rails on the track? Could track in stations be made with materials that would make less noise?
If you have to subject yourself to public transportation consider getting ear plugs. They are cheap. You can also go to a gun shop and buy a muffler headset of the sort that get used on gun ranges. I bought such a headset when I worked next to a machine shop. Worked pretty well.
Subway stations and tunnels are typically constructed of hard, smooth surfaces: concrete, steel, tile, glass. This stuff bounces sound all over. Sound-deadening materials, like fabric or wood, aren't as durable and are difficult to keep clean. You're paying for the ease of maintenance with your hearing loss.
Unfortunately, modern restaurant designers are building interiors that are more and more like subways. Check out the noise level next time you visit the chi-chi cafe of the week; it's probably a noise hazard. Personally, I don't eat in subway stations.
Ear plugs. Get etymotic's low-end $12 ones. They're pretty comfy, and the sound attenuation is smooth enough that you can talk pretty normally to people -- no awful muddiness to the sound. Buy another pair when you lose them.
If you go to rock shows as often as I used to (i.e., one to three times a week), splurge on their 'musician's plugs' and get a couple different inserts. Life after those plugs was like life after the California public-smoking ban: I didn't know how good it could be until it happened. Totally worth the otherwise-daunting initial investment.
What you have against public transit otherwise befuddles me, but to each his own.
"Is the noise from rails on the track?"
Most of it
"Could track in stations be made with materials that would make less noise?"
You would loose the efficiency of steel wheels on steel rails.
Why not look for active noise reduction technologies, like those used in Bose head phones?
Ear plugs. Get etymotic's low-end $12 ones.
Better yet, get earplugs that are also earphones that plug into an iPod or whatever MP3 player. Contrary to some people's assumptions earplug style mp3 earphones allow playing the music (or podcast info) at moderate levels. They don't compete with the subway noise but rather start from behind an earplug shield against it, or the great bulk of it.
Sony makes some cheap ones. Etymotic makes some really super ones, such as the 4p's which I love. Also some cheaper ones.
The relatively reasonable cost way to a quieter subway is the Paris metro approach. Rubber wheels on steel tracks. Not sure what the retrofit cost for NYC would be though.
Might be cheaper to buy everyone iPod's and Etymotic 4p's. :-) Anyway, that works super for me (without the subsidy).
People don't live in NYC for their health :)
Inner-ear headphones are a joy.
While living in NYC, my guess is that I did more damage to my ears at the shows I went to than on the subway I rode often, though not daily.