Audiologists beware! Boston poses a dire threat to the cause of hearing loss prevention

BOSTON—The American Academy of Audiology (AAA) came up with a perfect match between venue and topic for its 2012 Academy Research Conference. The conference will be held March 28 in Boston, a day before the start of AudiologyNOW 2012. And the subject will be noise-induced hearing loss.

Why are Boston and NIHL such a perfect combination? Because Boston boasts of–or perhaps is embarrassed to admit—having what must be one of the noisiest public transportation systems in the country. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) system, known to locals as the T, has been a crucial part of the city’s infrastructure since the late 19th century. While the system still works, it’s showing its age.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in the screech of the Green Line trains as they pass through two of the busiest stations in Boston: Government Center and Boylston Street.

According to an article in the January 31 Boston Herald,  a daily paper, the noise of the trolley’s steel wheels grinding against the curved metal tracks was found to exceed 107 dB. That, says the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), is a level at which exposure for as little as three minutes a day can cause hearing loss, not to mention high blood pressure and sleep disorders.

Thais Morata, an NIOSH researcher told the Herald, “It is likely that people working in subways are overexposed to noise and at risk of hearing loss.”

T officials blame the problem on the age of the system, which was the nation’s first subway when it opened in 1897. Fixing the problem, an MBTA official told the Herald, would require a reconfiguration of the tracks and of the tunnels, which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Ironically, the MBTA is planning a $74 million modernization project, which will improve accessibility to people with disabilities. However, nothing in it will prevent the risk that the din of the T trains will add to the number of riders with hearing disabilities.

 

A TASK FOR THE ACADEMY?

Wherever AAA holds its annual convention, it always tries to bring to the community some advice on preventing hearing loss. This year’s Academy Research Conference will examine many aspects of noise-induced hearing loss, from the basic biology of noise-induced injury to its evaluation, prevention, and treatment. Perhaps it can also provide some help to those beleaguered riders on the T.

Or, maybe those 107-dB readings will receive some attention at the Dangerous Decibels Educator Training Workshop, which will be held in Boston on March 26 and 27, in conjunction with AudiologyNOW!

Information on AudiologyNOW! 2012 and the Research Conference is available at audiology.org. To attend the Dangerous Decibels Workshop, e-mail dd@ohsu.edu.