Listen up!

Noise: It's a big issue in Annapolis, for two reasons: The music inside could be hazardous to patrons' hearing, and the noise outside irritates residents.

February 14, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

We met at the Annapolis City Dock at 2200 hours on a Saturday. In the not-so-quiet of the dark and chilly night, our mission was to troll narrow city streets and infiltrate the hopping Annapolis weekend bar scene to gather intelligence on noise levels with a sound-level monitor.

We were to observe, count decibels and ask revealing questions like, "Do you ever think about, um, HEARING LOSS when you're bopping to 'Getting Jiggy With It' seven tequilas into the night?" or "It's 2 a.m. Do your parents know you're whooping it up on Main Street and waking up residents?"

The state capital plays host to legislators and lawyers during the week and tourists on weekends, but a different crowd emerges on Friday and Saturday nights -- a loud, out-of-town species, according to many downtown residents.

And these residents, weary from sleep deprivation, are cheering on Mayor Dean L. Johnson and Alderman Louise Hammond, who want to make it a strict violation to hoot and holler on city streets so as to "unreasonably disturb the peace."

Which raises the questions: How loud is loud in Annapolis -- both inside the bars and on the street? And how damaging could it be to your hearing?

The truth is, as much as noise is a nuisance issue, it's a health issue. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says listening to anything that is 95 decibels or louder for four hours can cause permanent hearing damage, and no one should be exposed to 105 decibels for more than an hour.

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 35 percent of the 28 million cases of hearing loss in the United States are attributable wholly or partially to noise exposure.

But, fearlessly, a photographer and I accepted the task of being the party police, and we found that decibel levels at downtown bars were potentially harmful, according to a Johns Hopkins University noise expert.

The evening began at McGarvey's, a packed bar near the city dock, where the music and buzz of conversation did not seem louder than most bars. McGarvey's clocked an average of 86 decibels over 15 minutes. Right after we left, an ambulance passing by provided an interesting juxtaposition, blaring a 90-decibel siren.

Riordan's, near the dock, averaged 85 to 90 decibels, and ACME Bar & Grill, on Main Street, was loudest: From 10:45 to 11:15 p.m., with the DJ continually spinning dance music, our ears were battered with a 99- to 104-decibel repertoire of Will Smith, Van Morrison and Salt-N- Pepa. We had to holler at 105.8 decibels to hear each other and left feeling more than a little deaf.

"One would assume that if people are spending large amounts of times exposed to high noise levels in bars, they are also at serious risk of doing permanent damage to their hearing," said Ilene Busch- Vishniac, an acoustics expert and dean of the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. "It may not hurt them [when they're in the bar] but if the levels get adequately high and you don't perceive that your hearing has been affected, it has a cumulative effect over the years."

Busch-Vishniac said it has been her "personal crusade" to get musicians to lower volumes when they perform. "My advice is that if you're going to be exposed to loud noise, you should take steps like going to the local drugstore and buying very inexpensive ear plugs and putting them in before you even show up."

But hearing damage isn't often on the minds of partygoers. In fact, 22-year-old Doug Dosberg said he knows about potential hearing damage. He just doesn't care.

"Loud music stimulates you," said Dosberg, an Edgewater resident who hovered near the dance floor in ACME. "I think it does something to the human chemistry. Something in the brain."

He reflected the views of several other young partiers that night, who also seemed oblivious to the distress their noise caused residents.

Of course, residents' complaints have to do with outside the bar, not inside. They say winter weekends are not as loud as in warmer seasons, when cars cruise with windows rolled down and music blasting, and motorcycles zoom around late in the night and the party takes place as often out on the streets as it does inside the bars.

Even so, we found the city streets relatively noisy after bars began closing at midnight.

We generally registered 50 decibels in the neighborhood streets, 60 to 65 decibels on Main and in the city dock area, but some shrill groups -- talking loudly to compensate for temporary bar-music deafness, yelling at friends across the street or just screaming and hooting -- brought the decibel range up to 72 to 96, and once as high as 113.

Cars starting up and zooming away were about 70 decibels.

"It's bad on any given night, but you can't underestimate the cumulative effect of what that does to downtown," said Minor Carter, president of the Ward One Residents Association. "It may not be that bad to the first-time observer, but if this is your ninth weekend in a row ..."

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