Opinion: Supersized noise

POSTED: 03/17/14 6:44 PM

While politicians in St. Maarten as usual have better things to do, the discussion about noise pollution and the damage supersized noise could do to one’s hearing is reaching a critical point. In Aruba, there is already a push for legislation to regulate sound levels at events like Carnival. In St. Maarten, the Carnival Development Foundation still thinks that handing out a couple of thousand earplugs is enough to deal with the situation – knowing darn well that nobody controls whether people who are exposed to the Carnival sound wall actually use those things.

For Carnival goes: loud is beautiful, very loud is even more beautiful and for extremely loud there are not enough words in the dictionary to describe the state of euphoria this apparently creates. For others, there are not enough expletives in said dictionary to speak their mind about sound terrorism.

Here are some cool figures from the Netherlands. They could come from everywhere, of course, since extremely loud music has the same effect on hearing everywhere. But here goes: every year about 20,000 young people in the Netherlands sustain hearing damage. Get ready for the Dutch summer with its outdoor music festivals and its harrowing dance beats.

The Volkskrant quoted the following from a 29-year-old German:  “I am unable to speak at this moment, because it hurts my ears. Tapping at the keyboard even hurts a little bit. The peep-tone in my ears is for the first time really unbearable. It rises above everything. My quality of life is too low to be able to continue. Hundreds of times I have fought back after sound traumas. I enveloped myself in silence, I behave a-socially. I rejected all proposals for social activities and locked myself up until the cure came. But there is a limit – and I have reached it.”

The young German is (actually: was) Dietrich Hectors. The quote is from his farewell letter. Hectors lived for years with the hearing impairments tinnitus and hyperacusis. The first one creates a perpetual sizzle, the second makes patients hypersensitive to sound. Hectors could not take the noise in his head anymore and at age 29, he committed suicide.

Patients have compared the noise in their head with the sizzle TV produces when there is no broadcast going on, combined with occasional high beep-tones.

Jan de Laat, an audiologist at the university in Leiden says that 5 percent of the Dutch population suffers from tinnitus. In most cases the impairment is caused by music that is too loud. And don’t think that tinnitus is a condition one develops over time (for instance by listening to Rolling Stones records at top volume for twenty years). De Laat says that one incident could be enough – like experiencing a fireworks explosion from too close.

Today’s culprit is of course the mp3 (or mp4) player. People who walk the streets with those ridiculous headphones on their heads seem to be prime candidates for hearing damage – though some of the youngsters in this category may succumb sooner to the effects of a traffic accident that happened to them while crossing a street without paying attention

Compared to twenty years ago, Dutch citizens are in need of a hearing aid ten years sooner. Half the population will need such a piece of equipment by the age of 60, while twenty years ago the average was 70 years of age.

There is one thing to keep in mind about damage to one’s hearing: it is irreparable. When it hits, it’s for life. It could impede taking part in meetings, it could make phone conversations complicated or impossible and it could have a negative effect on the ability to concentrate.
The Dutch sound wall industry is waking up to this reality. Last year businesses that organize festivals and clubs signed an agreement that the average sound in their businesses may not exceed 103 decibel – measured during a quareter of an hour. It is a tiny step in the right direction, because it means that one could only remain for a quarter of an hour safely in a place with such sound levels.

Mp3-players are less easy to regulate of course, especially since there are head h[phones with individual sound level adjustment capabilities. Some headphones allow users to produce 120 decibels and that is according to experts athe absiulute pain-limit.
The idea of wearing hearing protection like earplugs in a disco does not go down very well. Robert van Gijsel, a music journalist, wrote a couple of years ago that going with earplugs to a concert is like wearing sun glasses in the Van Gogh museum.

But according to the Volkskrant the times they are a’changin: an increasing number of people seem to love perfect hearing more than the sound bashing they have to endure in disco’s and other placers that speicalize in making a lot of noise. More and more people go to concerts with earplus and the number of ear-plugged disco-visitors seems to be on the increase as well.

Hearing protection has even leds to the mergence of a new industry. There are a handful of companies in the Netherlands that produce tailor made earplugs.

Of course, there ought to be a simpler solution to all this. For instance, one could point out to bands that there is a button for sound level control on their installations. For the time being that seems to be too  much to ask.

Our public health minister ought to pay a visit to his colleage in Aruba who came with the plan to legislate sound levels at public events. It would be a tiny step in the right direction.

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