Is Riding the NYC Subway Hazardous to Commuters' Hearing?

The 4 million commuters who use New York City's subway system every weekday might be experiencing permanent hearing damage - and wearing an iPod could increase the risk, a study suggests.

Researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health found that New York subway noise levels can go as high as 106 decibels, which exceeds recommended limits established by the World Health Organization (WHO) and EPA.

Even as little as 30 minutes of daily exposure to decibel levels measured in New York City's subway system could result in hearing loss, according to researchers, who published their findings in the September issue of the Journal of Urban Health and call the study the first scientific subway noise assessment in the past 30 years.

"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, professor of Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health and lead author of the study.

According to Gershon, WHO and EPA guidelines dictate that people should not be subjected to levels of 106 decibels for more than 30 seconds to protect their hearing.

In addition, she states that other factors could heighten a commuter's chances of hearing loss, such as years of ridership, frequency of readership and length of rides.

Earplugs/Earmuffs Recommended

While many riders turn to iPods and other personal listening devices to drown out the noise, it's a practice that Gershon says could increase the risk of hearing loss, as even short exposures to very high noise levels can cause the same amount of damage as much longer exposures to lower levels.

To reduce the risk of excessive noise exposure, Gershon recommends that individuals use personal hearing protection devices such as earplugs and earmuffs, whereas putting cotton or fingers in the ears only reduces noise levels slightly. Also, Gershon suggests that riders should stand in the front of the station platform rather than in the middle or back.

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