New Yorkers are willfully resigned to a life of noise, particularly while riding through the city’s 109-year-old subway system.
But the heavy machinery and train cars that create a daily metal-on-metal cacophony can be harmful to your ears.
“What you’re essentially doing is stressing out your ears,” said Dr. Chris Herget, an audiologist who practices at New York City Hearing and Balance in midtown.
On a recent Monday afternoon, a week before the start of National Protect Your Hearing Month, amNewYork joined Herget at several Manhattan stations to find out exactly how loud the subway system can get.
Using a sound-measuring device, trains barreling into transit hubs like Times Square and smaller local stations ranged from 92 decibels to 102 decibels, a level people can be exposed to for up to 15 minutes without damaging hearing. And even though trains can enter and leave stations quickly, repeatedly listening to that level of sound from a platform can contribute to hearing issues, like tinnitus, the ringing in one’s ear, over time, Herget said.
“You’re not going to get hearing damage immediately,” he said. “It’s going to be a process of possible years and decades.”
Herget said riders can use ear plugs, likening them to wearing sunglasses at the beach. But he lamented that few people like to wear them for comfort or aesthetic reasons.
“It’s a shame hearing protection isn’t as fashionable as sunglasses,” Herget said.
The measurements were consistent with a comprehensive 2009 study into transit noise in the American Journal of Public Health. The study concluded that “given sufficiently long exposure durations, noise levels associated with mass transit are high enough to produce [noise-induced hearing loss] in riders.”
“Even those short bursts [of train noise] are potentially dangerous,” said Dr. Robyn Gershon, a former Columbia University professor who supervised the study. “Enough of them and they will hurt your hearing.”
The MTA has been trying to quiet its noisy subway system since the mid-1970s, including lubricating tracks on sharp curves, using quieter train wheels, and installing composite brake shoes on all subway cars to stop wheels from screeching, according to agency spokesman Kevin Ortiz.
“In combination, these efforts help create a quieter subway environment than just two decades ago,” Ortiz said in a statement.
For MTA workers, the agency requires an annual hearing test and hearing protection for employees exposed to at least 85 decibels over an eight-hour shift.
Tom Carrano, the director of subway safety at the Transport Workers Union Local 100, said that the union pushes for ways to quiet the workplace by using newer machines or relocating a noisy piece of equipment away from workers.
Still, he noted that decades of noise exposure has taken its toll on MTA workers.
“We have guys that retire and they’re legally deaf,” Carrano said. Workplace noise for an MTA employee “definitely affects you, your family, your safety.”
But riders said the noise is just a fact of life in New York City, even if it can be annoying.
“The decibels have got to be a lot higher than we’re accustomed to hearing,” Larry Parent, a Staten Islander and infrequent train rider, said while waiting in Union Square, a station notorious for screeching No. 4, 5 and 6 trains. “I’m not the only one holding their ears.”
Afiya Benn, a 26-year-old secretary from Canarsie, said she is used to the sound, though admitted to cranking up the volume on her music device when a station get too loud.
“Maybe in the future,” Benn said, “I’ll pay for it.”