Pam Parfitt, a member of the Santa Fe Mayor’s Committee on Disability, is working to inform the public about the harmful effects of noise pollution, a problem that is more widespread than most people might realize.
A 2020 national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 1 in 6 to 8 middle school and high school students, ages 12 to 19, has measurable hearing loss, likely resulting from excessive noise exposure.
“Those of us with hearing loss are even more sensitive to loud noise due to something known as recruitment, where hair cells in the cochlea are ‘recruited’ to hear the missing sound, which may cause the hard-of-hearing person to the perceive sound as overly loud and even damage their hearing more,” Parfitt said.
She’s experienced noise levels in Santa Fe that might exceed the city’s noise ordinance.
At a local brewery recently, she used a smartphone app to measure the venue’s ambient noise level, which registered at 90 to 100 adjusted decibels, or dBA, for over an hour. Also known as A-weighted decibels, dBA are the value of sounds at low frequencies that are reduced when ambient noise levels exceed a certain range.
Noise above 70 decibels over a prolonged period of time may start to damage hearing, and noise above 120 dB can cause immediate hearing loss.
Loud noises aren’t just problems at indoor venues.
Harriet, 82, a retired Santa Fe speech and language pathologist, uses a hearing aid and has hyperacusis, a painful sound sensitivity. She said the noise levels for the summer music concerts on the Plaza have consistently exceeded the city code, forcing her to leave something she enjoyed.
The Americans with Disabilities Act states people with disabilities must be able to obtain or enjoy “the same goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations” that are provided to other members of the public.
“This just can’t go on and on. There needs to be some consequences,” Harriet said.
Rik Blyth, general manager of La Fonda on the Plaza, is concerned about downtown noise pollution also is bad for business.
Because the hotel is located at the busy corner of Old Santa Fe Trail and San Francisco Street, he said, it has near-continuous traffic going past the front doors. “Once it gets past 8 pm and until almost midnight, there is a steady stream of very noisy cars and, in the summertime, motorcycles,” Blyth said.
“We have about 40 rooms that directly face one of these streets and have had numerous complaints and requests for room relocations,” he added.
This often causes La Fonda to reduce the room rate “due to the inconvenience and for something we can’t control,” Blyth said.
Several reviewers of downtown hotels in Santa Fe have commented on travel sites about the excessive traffic noise.
It may be time to turn down the volume, according to Quiet Communities, a nonprofit in Lincoln, Mass., with a mission to provide objective, evidence-based information on the growing public health problem of noise pollution.
David Fink, a Quiet Communities board member, presented a well-researched paper at the 2017 Acoustical Society of America conference.
According to his research, the main complaint of people with hearing loss is difficulty understanding speech in noisy environments. Noise-induced hearing loss limits a person’s ability to hear high-frequency sounds and understand speech, which seriously impairs the ability to communicate.
Even for those with normal hearing, the ability to understand speech indoors when conversing at 1 meter decreases from 100 percent to zero at only 75 dBA.
Many individuals with hearing loss also have tinnitus, a ringing in the ears, or hyperacusis. Both can be exasperated by loud noises, according to Fink’s research.
Andy Winnegar has spent his career in rehabilitation and is based in Santa Fe as a training associate for the Southwest ADA Center. He can be reached at email@example.com.