Exposure to loud noise can affect your hearing – and your life

Beit Shemesh resident Eric Polly, a computer expert, shares the history and consequences of his noise-induced hearing loss.

Eric Polly (photo credit: Courtesy)
Eric Polly
(photo credit: Courtesy)
My tinnitus was self-inflicted, beginning at a young age. Growing up in New York City, I traveled the subway line before the introduction of sealed air-conditioned cars. Ceiling fans rotated overhead, and the windows were open wide. The screeching and squealing of steel wheel on steel track was deafening, both underground and on the El.
From the age of 10, my friends and I had an annual ritual to light firecrackers and bottle rockets in the days leading up to Independence Day. At the end of each successive Fourth of July, my hearing seemed muffled, and over the years the ringing in my ears became louder and took longer to subside.
In college I received a Sony Walkman as a gift. That device was the probably the main contributor to my now permanent tinnitus.
Through my early 20s, I went to a fair number of loud rock concerts in indoor venues such as Madison Square Garden and the Palladium Theater, and those loud experiences added to all the other damage done.
By the time I turned 25, my tinnitus was a constant loud, shrill, never- ending high-pitched whistle in both ears.
The sound of silence does not exist for me because the high-pitched tinnitus whistle literally fills any silence. The deeper the silence, the more difficult it is to tune out the internal whistling. In quiet places, the silence can be literally deafening, making it difficult for me to fall asleep.
Periodic hearing tests over the years determined that the constant tinnitus was not significantly affecting my actual hearing comprehension, but as I entered my mid-50s I began experiencing worrying changes. There are periods where the whistling volume increases for weeks at a time and then decreases back to what I consider to be a more “normal” volume.
It is becoming difficult for me to hold one-on-one conversations in noisy environments, such as restaurants, a shul kiddush and, of course, weddings.
I need to concentrate closely in order to distinguish the voice of the person in front of me from the other voices surrounding us. I occasionally cup a hand around my ear to direct the speaker’s voice into it or stand sideways to allow the other party to speak directly into my ear.
The places where I now most frequently encounter loud noise are weddings and bar/bat mitzva celebrations. When I was younger, I would leave these events with a louder level of ringing in the ears, but it would subside and return back to its “baseline” background volume within a few days. In my 40s, each loud event was actually raising the baseline volume of ringing.
At a certain point, I learned to do the sensible thing and began to plug my ears. I purchased a supply of disposable foam earplugs and made it a habit to take them to every noisy event.
When the band turns up the volume and throngs of people head to the dance floor, clapping and stomping, whooping and whistling, accompanied by the super-amplified throbbing from enormous loudspeakers, I can remain pretty comfortable as long as my earplugs are securely in place. I can participate in the dancing in a state of blissful attenuation, wondering how everyone around is able to endure the noise without similar protection. Dozens of people who espy the colored bits of foam in my ears give me a thumbs-up as if to acknowledge that I am doing the right and sensible thing, yet they do not protect themselves.
I carry spare earplugs in my pocket, but when I offer them to others, they almost always refuse. Do they think it will make them look dorky? Are they not as bothered by the noise as I am? Do they not realize that they are probably inflicting irreversible damage on themselves that will plague them for the rest of their lives? I’m particularly disturbed at the sight of young parents bringing infants and children onto the dance floor, where they stand inches away from the powerful speakers. There are parents who feed their children only the healthiest of foods, yet pay no heed to the damage they are doing to their tender infants’ ears.
I’ve been to a number of events recently where the hosts placed packets of earplugs on the tables. That’s a step in the right direction but begs the question of how we got to the point where celebrations have become so loud that we need earplugs in the first place.
Few indoor wedding halls are designed with good acoustics.
Once the music cranks up, conversation is impossible.
When we reach the point that I am forced to communicate with my table mates via sign language or text messaging, I – with many others – seek refuge from the noise. We remain outside the hall throughout the rounds of dancing.
When my wife and I receive a wedding invitation, we sometimes consider informing our hosts that we will attend only the huppa ceremony and not the reception. We have attended enjoyable weddings over the years, but one never knows in advance. Only after we arrive can we survey the acoustics of the hall, the number of guests and the volume of the band.
It would be wonderful if hosts would be more sensitive to noise issues when planning events.
Cigarette packaging must include health warnings. Maybe the time has come for wedding invitations to include cautionary text as well, such as “Warning: Attendance may be hazardous to your health.”