Life's loud noises leave a generation struggling to hear

Noise takes toll on a generation

December 04, 2005|By FRANK D. ROYLANCE | FRANK D. ROYLANCE,SUN REPORTER

For most of his 20 years as a Montgomery County firefighter, Kurt Evers raced to emergencies in a torrent of noise from his truck's roaring diesel engine, blasting horn and wailing siren.

By the time he retired this year on disability, he had lost more than a quarter of his hearing. The last straw came when he missed a turn on an emergency run - he didn't hear his officer's directions.

Just 43, Evers wears a $5,700 pair of hearing aids. He works part time with his brother-in-law at a garage door company, but he misses his old job as a firefighter, "the only thing I really ever wanted to do."

"If this would have happened to me at 55," he says, "it would probably not be that big a deal. But in my 40s ... "

Evers is one of many among the 75 million Americans born during the postwar baby boom who are discovering that their mothers were right - all that noise did damage their hearing.

Whether it was at rock 'n' roll concerts, between stereo headphones, on the job or on foreign battlefields, hearing experts believe millions of boomers have done permanent injury to their ears.

Now ages 41 to 59, increasing numbers are realizing they've lost sensitivity to high-frequency sounds - including those they need to distinguish among "th," "f," "s" and other consonants critical to understanding speech.

"It's perceived as, `I can hear you, but I can't understand the words,'" says Dr. David J. Eisenman, medical director at the University of Maryland Medical Center's Hearing and Balance Center.

The problem is worst when there's lots of background noise, such as at parties or in restaurants. And hearing loss is often accompanied by a persistent ringing or buzzing in the ears, called tinnitus.

Hearing experts don't have studies to prove that baby boomers' hearing is worse than their parents' at the same age. But audiologists say more boomers seem to be seeking help earlier than their parents did.

"There's no question that baby boomers have been exposed to different sources of noise than any generation before them," says Dr. James F. Battey Jr., director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. "We're certainly seeing people in their 40s and 50s who notice their hearing is not as good as it used to be."

Montgomery firefighters now must wear ear protection. Sirens have been moved from fire engine cab roofs, where they were close to firefighters' ears, to the front bumpers.

The county's fire officials say five active firefighters are known to wear hearing aids. And a round of testing in June found 15 percent of the county's 1,038 fire fighters have some hearing loss - a third of it moderate to severe.

"I think it's much higher than that," says Kenneth M. Berman, a personal injury lawyer in Gaithersburg. He has enlisted 1,000 veteran firefighters - including 100 from Montgomery County - to join in lawsuits against Federal Signal Corp., one of the nation's largest siren manufacturers. Nationwide, nearly 2,500 firefighters with hearing loss have joined lawsuits.

Some hearing loss is normal with aging. A 1995 study noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than one-third of men and 22 percent of women reported hearing impairments by their early 70s - proportions that rose to about half by age 85.

The problem is that noise-induced damage accumulates throughout life, piling on top of impairments driven by age or genetics.

A 1997 study of the elderly in Alameda County, Calif., found that the incidence of hearing impairment had doubled between 1964 and 1994.

"It seems pretty obvious that hearing loss is increasing, probably because of environmental noise," says William J. Strawbridge, a medical sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco and co-author of the study.

Sound intensity is measured in decibels. An increase of 10 decibels represents a 10-fold boost in power. Twenty decibels reflects sound 100 times more powerful. The impact on humans depends on intensity, duration and distance.

Charlie McCollum knows this well. He figures he lost about 10 percent of his hearing during the late 1970s, during three years of full-time work as a rock 'n' roll writer for the now-defunct Washington Star newspaper. He was in his early 30s then.

"As a critic, you frequently got seats that were inside a VIP area that was even closer to the banks of speakers than most audiences," he says. "The last full year I did it, it was 285 concerts. ZZ Top and Kiss and bands like that were probably doing 150 decibels."

Any sound above 85 decibels can damage hearing with long or repeated exposure. Above 125 decibels - about usual for a chain saw - safe exposure is measured in seconds.

"Suddenly, I realized I was not hearing people telling me things," he recalls. "I kept saying, `Huh?'"

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