You’ll be shocked to learn just how little daily exposure to subway noise can damage your hearing.

Do you ride the subway to work every day yet don’t wear protection in your ears to prevent hearing loss? Protection can be earplugs or the type of ear “muffs” that you see industrial workers wearing.

Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health did research into how much daily subway noise can harm hearing: just 30 minutes a day!

The study included recording decibel levels of sound in NYC’s subway system. A decibel is a unit of sound volume.

I’ve ridden subways in Chicago and always wore earplugs, even though my foray into the subway world was rare.

But loud is loud, and there was no way I’d venture into a subway without hearing protection.

Just like some people will not go into the sun without sunscreen, people should be just as protective of their hearing when in loud environments.

The full report is in the Journal of Urban Health (Sept. 2006). “Noise exposure and noise-induced hearing loss is a global health problem of significant magnitude, especially in urban settings,” says lead study author Robyn Gershon, DrPH, “yet published data are extremely limited.”

Don’t wait for reams of data or study findings to come out, when common sense says it all: If you’re in a loud setting, it won’t hurt to wear earplugs.

The report clearly states that daily subway noise (and this includes on the platforms waiting for the trains, not just inside the trains), “has the potential to cause hearing loss.”

Highest Decibel Level on Subway Platform
The paper says it was 106 decibels. The World Health Organization and Environmental Protection Agency say that the allowable limit to 106 dB before likely occurrence of hearing damage is only 30 seconds.

In the study, greater than one in 10 subway platform measurements was louder than 100 dB; this means a time allowance of 90 seconds. Inside the cars, however, the noise was even louder.

Average maximum level of noise on a subway platform came in at 94 dB. The inside average was 95.

How loud is this? A chainsaw is about 100 dB and a gunblast is 140 dB. Normal conversation is 45-60.

Ear buds with music loud enough to drown out some of the subway noise will not offset the potential hearing loss from the train; it will make things worse, says the report.

We are still in the Dark Ages when it comes to understanding the importance of hearing protection in loud environments.

One time I was on a 16th Street Mall bus in Denver, wearing custom made earplugs. A man was standing in front of me, holding a girl of about three years.

She pointed to me and asked her father something about the things in my ears. I don’t know what he whispered to her, but something tells me it wasn’t a no-nonsense, “Those are earplugs to protect her hearing from this loud bus.” (Yes, if a preschooler is old enough to ask a question, they’re old enough to get a no-nonsense, one-line answer.)

Anyways, she just kept staring at me like I was a Martian. I can only wonder what Daddy told her. People need to be taught at an early age that it’s smart, not weird, to wear earplugs in loud environments (like subways and buses).