by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Anyone who has ever taken the Underground (the subway, also known colloquially as the Tube) in London, as I have, knows that the trains there are noisy. Some lines date back to Victorian times, and on many lines the cars are decades old.

This report from the BBC documents how loud–greater than 105 decibels on many lines.

Transport for London, the quasi-governmental agency operating the Underground, downplays the risk. London Underground’s Nigel Holness said it monitored noise levels on the network and was investigating other ideas to “further reduce noise.” He added that, “[w]hile customers travelling on our network can experience noise, higher volumes tend to be for short periods of time and Health & Safety Executive guidance on noise suggests it is highly unlikely to cause any long-term damage to customers’ hearing.”

I would disagree.

The United Kingdom’s Health and Safety Executive, its equivalent of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, offers a “Noise Exposure Daily Reckoner” that allows workers, or in this case commuters using the Underground, to calculate their daily noise doses. Only 15 minutes at 105 decibels gives the exposed person a total daily noise dose of 90 decibels. That’s enough noise exposure to cause hearing loss over time. Those who spend an hour a day get the equivalent of a total daily noise dose of 96 decibels, which for sure will cause noise-induced hearing loss over time.

Many London commuters probably spend that much time each day in the Underground and in other trains or buses, maybe even more for those with long commutes.

And even strict adherence to recommended occupational noise exposure levels doesn’t protect all exposed workers from hearing loss.

Noise is different from other occupational exposures, e.g., ionizing radiation or toxic solvents, in that exposure continues outside work, all day long, all year long, for an entire life. I haven’t found a similar study for the UK, but Flamme et al. in the U.S. showed that 70% of adults in quiet Kalamazoo County, Michigan–where there is no Underground and the Subway is a fast-food restaurant chain–received total daily noise doses in excess of Environmental Protection Agency safe noise exposure levels. There is no reason to think that London is any quieter. I know from my personal observations in London, and from following reports from Pipedown about too-loud background music in the UK and from Action on Hearing Loss’s campaign for quieter restaurants, that noise exposure is certainly a problem there.

As Transport for London might say, “Mind the gap.” But in this case, the gap is going to be in its riders’ hearing.

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