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Dangerous Decibels: Dancing Until Deaf

by Ed Walsh

The Bay Area Reporter /H.E.A.R.

March 30, 2000

(San Francisco) What? That's how you could be starting your conversations in a few years if you attend one of San Francisco's most popular dance clubs. The Bay Area Reporter newspaper tested the decibel levels of a dozen of The City's clubs and found their noise levels so extreme, they not only violate your hearing, they violate the law. The paper's survey found the loudest club in San Francisco, the Sound Factory, was also its most popular. It belted out music as high as 115 decibels. That's louder than sandblasting. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), you should limit your time in the Sound Factory to 4 minutes and 43 seconds. By contrast, the quietist club in the survey was Holy Cow. NIOSH says you can spend an hour on its dance floor before you get in trouble. All the clubs surveyed were in violation of the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (CAL-OSHA) laws governing noise in the workplace. CAL-OSHA told the Bay Area Reporter it doesn't have the resources to routinely monitor the clubs. Some of the clubs surveyed were so loud, NIOSH says its workers should wear both earplugs and earmuffs. There are virtually no regulations in place to protect the clubs' customers from noise. If a club patron believes a club is the source of his or her hearing damage, the only recourse is a civil lawsuit. But because hearing loss is insidious, proving one source as a cause of hearing loss is at best, a legal challenge.

"Dangerous Decibels: Dancing till Deaf" is a three part article. Part one includes the survey and analysis. Part two includes a section answering frequently asked questions on noise and hearing loss. A simple test in Part two explains how readers can tell if their favorite club is too loud. Part three concludes the series with a resource guide and a look at a hearing loss clinic aimed at preventing noise induced hearing loss in young people. The Bay Area Reporter is a weekly newspaper directed towards the San Francisco Bay Area's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities. The B. A. R. found gay dance clubs were no louder, in general, than straight clubs. The loudest club in the survey, the Sound Factory, is a straight club.

Dangerous Decibels: Dancing till Deaf. A B. A. R. special report: How your favorite dance spot is killing you loudly. First of three parts. By Ed Walsh "What?" If you regularly attend one of San Francisco's most popular dance clubs, that's how you may be starting your conversations in a few years. San Francisco's hottest clubs have noise levels so extreme, they not only violate your hearing, they violate the law. The Bay Area Reporter surveyed a dozen of The City's most popular clubs and measured music levels the experts call "dangerous." The survey found clubgoers are routinely exposed to levels that could result in non-reversible hearing loss, permanent ringing in the ear (tinnitus), or a condition called hyperacusis which paradoxically causes the afflicted to be overly sensitive to noise. The loudest club in the study was not a gay club but the very popular and Sound Factory, which advertises in its flyers: "You'll hear it ... before you see it!" The SOMA club at the foot of the Bay Bridge more than lived up to its billing with music pounding out of its speakers at 115 decibels (dB). The Federal government says levels over 85 dB are dangerous. A vacuum cleaner runs about 70 dB, a jackhammer at 100 dB, and sandblasting about 110 dB. Each increase of 10 decibels represents a doubling of the perceived sound. So the Sound Factory's peak of 115 dB is significantly louder than sandblasting. If a hostile government conspired to destroy the hearing of America's young people, it would be hard pressed to come up with a better formula than the typical dance club.

Aerobic exercise while listening to loud noise, alcohol consumption, smoking and exposure to second hand smoke have been shown to make noise-induced hearing damage even worse. Most club patrons seem oblivious to the risks. Sound Factory customer Paul Collins, 26,believes noise-induced hearing loss for the most part is a "myth." Collins says he's been going to clubs regularly and hasn't noticed any problems with hearing loss although he has noticed ringing in the ears after he's left clubs. Experts say ringing in the ears should be thought of as an alarm bell signaling that temporary hearing damage has taken place and over time could result in permanent hearing damage. For Mikel Scott, ringing in the ears after leaving a dance club was not temporary. Scott, 36, is a New York-based flight attendant who frequents San Francisco gay dance clubs on his weekly stopovers. For the past six years, Scott has suffered from tinnitus. The ringing in his ears never stops. "It's constant," says Scott. "It's the worst when it's quiet because all I can hear is the ringing." Scott says he got tinnitus one evening after dancing too close to the speakers at an Atlanta dance club. "My ears were ringing when I left the club that night and it's never stopped" Ironically, it's something he can forget while clubbing because the loud music drowns out the ringing. Some clubgoers say they have cut back on their attendance because of the noise. Kanani Cruz, 34, says she used to go to clubs at least once a week. Now she goes about three times a month. Cruz says the noise is so extreme that she "can't hear shit" when she leaves often gets headaches and ringing in the ears following her club attendance. Julie Macias, 28, attributes a steady loss in her hearing to regular clubgoing. "When I leave the clubs, my ears ring all night till the morning," says Macias. "I've had to wear a special headset at work to boost the sound so I can hear the callers and I've learned to lip read."

Work Place Safety All the clubs surveyed are in violation of California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (CAL-OSHA) regulations on workplace noise. The law, which mimics the Federal OSHA rules, requires employees working in sound levels over 85 dB wear ear protection, be given regular hearing exams, and be provided with an employer-sponsored hearing loss education program. The law also requires warning signs be posted in areas where ear protection is required. But CAL-OSHA does not spot check nightclubs. It only responds to complaints from workers. CAL-OSHA spokesman, Dean Fryer, says his agency doesn't have the resources to routinely monitor dance clubs but he says CAL-OSHA investigates all employee complaints and any club employee can file a complaint anonymously. Fryer adds the law prohibits employers from firing or taking punitive action against an employee for filing a complaint. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) guidelines say exposure to the Sound Factory's average decibel level of 105 for more than 4 minutes, 43 seconds a day without ear protection is a serious risk to hearing. NIOSH recommends that any workers exposed to levels over 100 dB wear both earplugs and earmuffs simultaneously. The quietest club surveyed, Holy Cow, averaged a relatively tame 94 dB but NIOSH says unprotected exposure even at that level for more than an hour a day could be dangerous. At 103 dB, Release, which meets Saturday nights at the club space on 1015 Folsom Street, falls between the two extremes. NIOSH recommends unprotected exposure at that level be limited to 7 minutes, 30 seconds a day.

Spinning till deaf Hearing loss is a fact of work life, say people who make their livings in dance clubs. Pete Avila, 34, is a DJ with 14 years experience spinning in the Bay Area and is one of the country's most influential and innovative DJs. He has the classic symptoms of noise-induced hearing loss. Avila has difficulty hearing conversations when there's background noise. "When there's a busy restaurant with a lot of noise, it's hard for me to hear someone who's sitting right across from me," he says. He sometimes misunderstands words and has to turn up the TV louder than most people. Avila wears earplugs when he's on the dance floor but not while he's working. "It's difficult, because when you are in the club situation and in the moment, you sort of want the music loud to feel what people are feeling on the dance floor," he says. Avila was music director at the Sound Factory for four years and concedes "it took a toll on my ears." Over the years, Avila has worked at virtually every dance club in San Francisco. He says no club owner ever expressed concern about the hearing health of its workers or patrons. "Club owners don't give a shit," said Avila. "All they want is your money. They don't care about you." "The deejays suffer incredibly," says San Francisco dance music producer Tyler Stone. "I've worked in the studio with a lot of deejays and these people need to really crank the volume to levels that are unbelievable to me." There's "incredible denial" about the problem, Stone said. "Quite honestly, I don't think there's any awareness in the club scene." In the very competitive gay dance club industry, there is no bigger name than Page Hodel, who ran the wildly successful nightclub, The Box, for more than a decade. Her latest club, Soul, is on hiatus until later this spring, and she plans to launch another new club, Respect, also later this spring. At 43, Hodel has paid the price for her success. "I can't sit in a restaurant for example and have a conversation at a table without saying 'what' three thousand times," she says. Like Avila, Hodel has one of the classic symptoms of noise-induced hearing loss. "I hear all sounds at the same volume and can't isolate sounds. I have trouble isolating the sound of the mixing blender from the person sitting next to me at the table," she says. Still, Hodel says exposure to dance club noise is voluntary. "Nobody is making anyone walk through that door. ... If you have 950 people who love it and want it so loud they can't even see straight and two others who want it low, then hey, maybe those people should go somewhere else." If enough customers asked her to turn down the volume, Hodel says, she'd do it.

Most club owners, under fire recently for drug use in and around the clubs, are oblivious to the problem. Ray Bobbitt, head of the Mirror Corporation, which runs both the Sound Factory (115 dB) and City Nights (108 dB) said the clubs are giving the public what it wants. "We don't get complaints from patrons because we don't play our music that loud," says Bobbitt. Adding to concerns for San Francisco clubgoers, studies show noise-induced hearing damage is worsened by dancing, alcohol consumption, and tobacco smoke. Scientists theorize the altered blood flow caused by exercise deadens the ear's natural defense reflex against loud noise. Possibly by the same mechanism, alcohol consumption and cigarette smoke have been shown to hurt the ear's self-defense reflex. "Anything that alters the blood flow might also alter the person's susceptibility to getting hearing loss or tinnitus," says Director Robert Sweetow of the UCSF-Stanford Audiology Department. A study by the University of Ohio found that men are more likely than women to listen to loud music even if they didn't like the particular song being played. That may be why the Girl Spot is a little quieter than Fag Fridays even though both clubs meet in the same space at the Endup. At most dance clubs, the bar was separate from the dance floor and although quieter, the bars in all the clubs in the survey were significantly above the 85 dB safety level. Bartenders at Sound Factory's Conga Room appeared to be in the greatest danger because of the bar's location directly on the dance floor. Though the clubs are violating labor laws by subjecting their employees to extreme noise levels, they can legally blast their patrons' eardrums into the next zip code. San Francisco's noise ordinances pertain only to noise leaking out of clubs and its impact on neighbors. Berkeley is one of the few cities in the country with a law governing noise inside clubs. That law requires a conspicuous warning sign be posted if the decibel rate exceeds 95 anywhere in the club. By that standard, virtually all San Francisco clubs would have to post warning signs. Although the gay clubs overall weren't any quieter, its customers seem to be a little more aware of the danger. While virtually none of the patrons or bartenders at the straight clubs were wearing earplugs, 5-10% of the customers of gay clubs were. The gay Club Universe's veteran bartender Guy DuBois was one of the few bartenders observed wearing earplugs and appeared to have no problem hearing customers' drink orders. DuBois says he always wears earplugs when tending bar on Universe's dance floor, adding "I've noticed if I don't wear them, I get ringing in my ears."

Canadian scientist Marek Roland-Mieszkowski, who has crusaded against loud dance clubs for over a decade advocates that bars cash in on "safety zone" advertising, agreeing to limit their levels to no more than 85 dB. That's louder than a vacuum cleaner but quieter than a lawn mower. As head of the sound engineering company Digital Recordings, Roland-Mieszkowski says, he found that hearing damage can be worse at dance clubs because people go to socialize. "The danger is when music gets so loud that you have to shout in somebody's ears," says Roland-Mieszkowski. "Shouting can produce up to 140 decibels close to the mouth." Roland-Mieszkowski said he noticed the effects of dance club noise on one of his close relatives. "He was only 20-something, attending clubs once every week, and his hearing was at the level of a 60 or 70 year old person," he said. Recent "improvements" in sound systems have only improved the chances for hearing damage. "The music we listen to now is nosier," says U.C.S.F Stanford's Robert Sweetow. "Twenty years ago when I would drive my car, I could limit the loudness of music because when I turned my music up too loud it would start to distort but now I could just keep cranking my radio up louder and louder and the speakers are so good and the amplifiers are so good, it almost never distorts."

The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) recently launched a club noise awareness campaign in Great Britain after a RNID survey found that 62% of regular clubbers have symptoms of hearing loss. RNID reports that the numbers of young people exposed to dangerous noise levels has tripled since the early 80's. It also found that tinnitus rates among young people have increased three fold during that same time period. "We are roller-coasting towards an epidemic of hearing loss in middle rather than older age," says RHID's Chief Executive James Strachan.

Dangerous Decibels FAQ My favorite club is not on your list and I 'm not in the habit of carrying around a decibel meter, so how do I know if it's too loud? If you have to shout to be heard from three feet away, that's a good warning sign. Temporary ringing in the ears when you leave a club is another. The director of the League for the Hard of Hearing's Noise Center, Nancy Nadler, suggests the following test: Before you go into a club, set your car radio to a comfortable listening level on a talk radio station. When you come out, don't touch the volume. If you have any difficulty hearing, or if the speech sounds muffled in any way, that indicates you probably experienced a temporary shift in hearing. With repeated exposure that temporary shift in hearing will become permanent and there's nothing you can do to get it back. (For those cabbing or Muni-ing it, try the experiment with a Walkman.)

I'm okay as long as I dance far from the speakers, right? Wrong. Of course it's best to dance away from the speakers but you're still in danger without earplugs. The biggest difference in sound levels was noticed at the space on 3rd and Harrison, home to several dance clubs, including City Nights and Faith. If you dance on the back of the stage above the main dance floor, you'll save yourself about 4 decibels, but you would still be well in the danger zone. Okay, so I'm in a club already and I forgot my earplugs, is there anything I can do to protect myself? What about tissue in the ears? Forget the tissue, it will reduce the levels only by a few decibels and could be counterproductive if it gives you a false sense of security. U.C.S.F. Stanford's Audiology Director, Robert Sweetow, says taking breaks from the noise can make a big difference. "If you step outside every 45 minutes for a 5 minute break, it will really help a lot." If they turned the music down to a "safe" level, it wouldn't be as much fun, we wouldn't be able to feel the music, right? No, the safe level of 85 dB is still loud, louder than a vacuum cleaner and louder than a mini-bike. 85 dB is loud enough to cause distortion on a cheap stereo. And since you probably go to clubs to socialize, you will probably have more fun if you don't have to shout to be heard.

Why don't the clubs turn the volume down? Club owners say they are giving you what you want. If you think it's too loud, let them know. It's a free country, no one's forcing anyone to go in the clubs, if people want to listen to music that loud and employees want to work in clubs around music so loud, why should anyone tell them they can't? Labor laws don't allow employers to subject employees to unnecessary and dangerous environmental conditions, period. As a business customer, you are protected from just about every other environmental risk. For example, a business is required to provide enough fire exits and adequate ventilation. One exception is noise. A business can legally provide an environment that could permanently destroy your hearing. Your only recourse is a civil lawsuit but since most hearing loss is insidious, you would have a hard time proving the source of your hearing damage. I've been going to the clubs for years without earplugs and my hearing is fine, if I was susceptible to hearing damage wouldn't I have noticed the effects by now? No, we're all susceptible to hearing loss. By the time you've noticed you've lost it, it's too late. You can prevent further damage but you'll never regain what's lost. And keep in mind, many people have developed tinitus (permanent ringing in the ears) or hyperacusis (being overly sensitive to noise) after just one exposure to very loud noise.

What are some of the warning signs of hearing damage?

1. Ringing in the ears.

2. Difficulty in hearing conversation during a party or busy restaurant or any place where there is a lot of background noise. (President Clinton was fitted for hearing aids after noticing this classic symptom of noise-induced hearing loss.)

3. With noise-caused hearing loss, you may lose clarity of consonants in the high frequency range, that includes s or soft c, f, sh, ch or h. Words like hill, fill, and sill may sound exactly the same. You may mistake 50 for 15 or 60 for 16.

4. Needing to listen to the television at a louder level than most people.

5. Hearing better with one ear than the other on the phone.

6. Being overly sensitive to even quiet sounds. I think I may have hearing damage, what do I do? Have your hearing evaluated by an audiologist. An audiologist is a professional with a masters or doctorate degree who's trained in the evaluation of hearing.

You can find one through a hearing or speech center, such as H.E.A.R. Or in private practice. You should also see a medical doctor or otolaryngologist in case your hearing loss is due to disease or general physical problems.

Dangerous Decibels: Dancing to deaf.

This is the final part of a three part series on noise-induced hearing loss. This report includes a resource guide and a look inside H. E. A. R.'s hearing clinic. If you raise the issue of hearing loss and music, experts quickly bring up the name of one organization and one woman: H.E.A.R. And its Executive Director, Kathy Peck. Peck CO-founded the San Francisco based "Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers" twelve years ago along with Falsh Gordon, MD. H.E.A.R.'s website gets 35,000 hits a day. The nonprofit fields calls and E- mails from every corner of the globe. Amazingly, its entire operation is run from Peck's home office with volunteers who are the back bone of the organizations efforts. Peck found the Bay Area Reporter's survey of dangerous decibel levels in San Francisco dance clubs alarming but not surprising. "One scientist documented decibel levels from amplified music as high as 140 decibels." Ironically, "In Defense of Animals" has staged series of demonstrations against U.C. San Francisco for exposing monkeys to 140 dB. "I got volunteers who subject themselves voluntarily to 140 dB for a two hour period," says Peck. Peck, 40, launched the nonprofit H.E.A.R. After suffering from permanent ringing in the ears (tinnitus) as a result of performing with her punk rock band at the Oakland Coliseum in 1984. She hopes to raise awareness of the dangerous decibel levels at dance clubs which still lags years behind the rock industry. Clients at one of H.E.A.R.'s clinics agreed. "Earplugs are more acceptable in concerts than dance clubs," said John Tramel. Tramel, 30, plays in a rock band and has noticed that about 30% of attendees wear earplugs. Tramel was getting custom fitted musicians earplugs, which have the effect of lowering the decibel level without distorting the sound. The plugs cost $150. But H.E.A.R. Will discount that fee for most musician union members and music assoications.

Peck targets her educational efforts towards young people who think hearing loss is something that happens much later in life. "It needs to be taken seriously, too many people think that hearing loss is old age, and it's not." She was recently contacted by an audiologist from Alaska concerned about children who suffered hearing loss from blasting the volume on their portable stereo headphones. The audiologist was worried because the children couldn't hear bears walking in the snow. "They were afraid their lives were threatened," says Peck. A University of Florida study backed up that concern. It found that 17% of adolescents are already suffering from some degree of hearing loss. H.E.A.R. Is one of the few organizations in the world that targets the problem of young people and hearing loss. Last year, it received the largest grant The Recording Academy (The Grammy's) has ever awarded. The Academy gave H.E.A.R. $30,000 as seed money to begin collating data it's collected over the past decade. H.E.A.R hopes to raise a total of $178,000 in order to hire a research scientist and a statistician and to obtain the necessary equipment to complete the project. H.E.A.R. Gets no government money and relies on donations and grants. Peck says it's a "constant struggle" to stay afloat. H.E.A.R. Has no funding to pay for medical professionals and relies on a dedicated volunteer audiologists to run its evening hearing clinic. Youth didn't shield Peck from hearing damage. She was in her early 20's in 1984 when she got tinnitus from one concert at the Oakland Coliseum. Persistent ringing in the ears has drove some tinnitus sufferers to depression and even suicide, but for Peck, it's a constant reminder more needs to be done.


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