Eat­ing out may be bad for your ears

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUN­DAY OPIN­ION - BY GAIL RICHARD The writer is pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Speech-Lan­guageHear­ing As­so­ci­a­tion and a fac­ulty mem­ber in the De­part­ment of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Disor­ders and Sciences at Eastern Illi­nois Uni­ver­sity.

I’m deaf in one ear. When I dine out, I pre­fer to be seated with that ear against the win­dow or wall and my good ear aimed to­ward my com­pan­ions. But at espe­cially loud restau­rants, I can’t hear any­one who isn’t right next to me, no mat­ter where I sit.

I’m cer­tainly not alone. Loud restau­rants have be­come a wide­spread bane of cus­tomers. The most des­per­ate have even re­ported wear­ing noise­can­cel­ing head­phones out to din­ner.

Such dras­tic mea­sures are in­creas­ingly nec­es­sary. From a health per­spec­tive, we should be as wor­ried about the ris­ing deci­bels of our fa­vorite neigh­bor­hood joints and na­tional chains as we are about their bal­loon­ing por­tion sizes.

The deci­bel lev­els at many pop­u­lar din­ing spots are ris­ing above what au­di­ol­o­gists con­sider safe for ex­tended pe­ri­ods. Con­sis­tently lis­ten­ing to noise lev­els above 70 deci­bels can cause hear­ing loss over time. And it is not un­usual for restau­rant re­view­ers who reg­u­larly list restau­rant noise in their re­views to find lev­els above 70 and even 80 deci­bels. Our din­ing habits could be dam­ag­ing our hear­ing.

Hear­ing loss is Amer­ica’s third most wide­spread chronic health con­di­tion — more com­mon than di­a­betes or can­cer, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion. And noise en­coun­tered in ev­ery­day life is more of a cul­prit than you might sus­pect. A re­cent CDC study found that 1 in 5 U.S. adults who had a hear­ing test and re­ported no noise ex­po­sure at work had hear­ing dam­age most likely caused by ev­ery­day en­vi­ron­men­tal noise. Teens and young adults are at risk of noise-in­duced hear­ing loss, too — 1.1 bil­lion of them around the world, ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Many restau­ra­teurs be­lieve they’re giv­ing restau­rant-go­ers what they want by build­ing high vol­ume into the de­sign of their spa­ces. Sleek sur­faces made of wood, mar­ble and other ma­te­ri­als that don’t ab­sorb sound are sta­ples of a typ­i­cal 21st cen­tury din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. An open floor plan that am­pli­fies pa­tron noise is part of the “vibe.”

But all that din in the din­ing room may not be as good for the bot­tom line as restau­rant own­ers think — not to men­tion the hear­ing health of the restau­rant work­ers reg­u­larly ex­posed to it. Con­sumer Re­ports says noise is the top com­plaint among restau­rant pa­trons it sur­veyed last year, above bad ser­vice. And a re­cent poll con­ducted by the Amer­i­can SpeechLan­guage-Hear­ing As­so­ci­a­tion re­vealed that more than 30 per­cent of peo­ple 18 and older say loud noises re­duce their en­joy­ment of out-of-home leisure ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing restau­rants; more than a quar­ter have cho­sen not to go back to a place that is too noisy.

If eater­ies want to keep their cus­tomers — and show they care about the pub­lic’s hear­ing just as much as they care about com­ply­ing with health stan­dards in the kitchen — there are steps they can take. They can cre­ate “quiet zones” for din­ers with hear­ing loss and oth­ers who pre­fer a less noisy scene. In ad­di­tion, sim­ple ad­just­ments to a restau­rant’s decor — such as draperies, acous­tic tiles, par­ti­tions and car­pet­ing — can im­prove sound ab­sorp­tion, break up the noise and pro­tect peo­ple’s ears.

Con­sumers and restau­rant work­ers also can take ac­tion. There are apps you can down­load to mon­i­tor noise level. And if a venue is too loud, don’t be sheep­ish: Put in foam earplugs or don those noise­can­cel­ing head­phones. And it might sound ob­vi­ous, but you can also ask restau­rant man­agers to turn down mu­sic or move you to a qui­eter part of the din­ing room. I’m never shy about mak­ing ei­ther of these re­quests when I dine out, and restau­rant staff are usu­ally will­ing to ac­com­mo­date.

Fi­nally, more restau­rant re­view­ers could list deci­bel lev­els along­side stars when they re­view restau­rants, as The Post’s Tom Si­et­sema has done for years. This al­lows con­sumers to pro­tect their hear­ing health, ei­ther by choos­ing not to go to a par­tic­u­lar restau­rant or by call­ing ahead to ask for a quiet ta­ble.

When peo­ple go to sport­ing events or con­certs, they ex­pect it to be loud and may bring along earplugs. A restau­rant, on the other hand, is not a venue peo­ple go to think­ing, “This could hurt my hear­ing.” But maybe they should — at least un­til more restau­ra­teurs rec­og­nize that re­duc­ing noise is the right thing to do.


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