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Sick of Sound

Those decibels can be harmful to not just your hearing but your health.

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Is New York making us deaf? Sounds like it. According to the League for the Hard of Hearing, hearing-test failures by New Yorkers in their sixties and seventies nearly doubled between 1980 and 1998. “We can’t say definitively that noise is why,” says LHH executive director Laurie Hanin. “But it does seem realistic.”

Who’s at risk? The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health tells workers to wear protection for prolonged exposure to levels over 85 decibels. Fine, if you’re a jackhammer operator; tricky, if you’re a waiter. “In 85 decibels, you’re shouting to be heard, and so is everyone. The room gets louder and louder,” says Nancy Nadler, who oversees the LHH Noise Center. Less than a minute of subway screech (115 decibels) will traumatize the inner ear’s hair cells: “A percentage will recover, and a percentage will not,” says neurotologist Kenneth Brookler. “With each exposure, you lose more.” Even in an otherwise healthful environment, hazards exist: The music in gyms can be as loud as 90 decibels, meaning your longest exposure should be two hours.

What about the effect on the rest of the body? “The best research indicates hypertension and increased cardiovascular risk,” says Arline L. Bronzaft, of the Council on the Environment’s noise committee. “But noise research is at the same stage as research about smoking and cancer was in the 1950s. We can’t say noise causes heart attacks, but we do know that it disrupts sleep and causes stress.”


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