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 ..."
ACME owner Roy Dunshee says: "This is not a new problem. There is nighttime activity in Annapolis and there is going to be noise associated with that."
Skipping down Main Street just after 1 a.m. to get from ACME to O'Brien's, Jenn Reichwein, 27, yammered loudly with a friend, emitting a 79-decibel laugh now and then.
"I'm sure it [stinks] for the residents," she said, with a flash of guilt while waiting to get into O'Brien's. "But I don't live here, so it's cool for me."
And the revelry went on and on. And on. Until 2:30 a.m., when the cars had zoomed off, the revelers had moved on, and the city finally became still again.
At 50 decibels.
Public hearing for Annapolis' public disturbance ordinance:
When: 7 p.m., Monday, Feb. 22
Where: City Hall, 160 Duke of Gloucester St., Annapolis
Where it's too loud, and what's being done
Health clubs It's a twist that will make couch potatoes smile. Self-improvers flock to health clubs to build better bodies, yet the noise in fitness classes regularly reaches levels that can permanently damage hearing, according to surveys by Raymond Hull, an audiologist in Wichita State University's Department of Communicative Disorders and Sciences.
A one-hour class should be no louder than 90 decibels, says Hull, but the music is almost always 105 to 110 decibels. "Go over 110 decibels for 30 minutes, and you are at risk for permanent damage to your hearing," he says.
The International Association of Fitness Professionals has issued recommendations that say music should be kept at less than 90 decibels in fitness classes, with the instructor's voice being no more than 10 decibels louder. The association also urges that professional sound meters be placed on stands in each class to get a continuous measure of sound levels.
Erlinda McGinty, a "middle-aged" exerciser in North Quincy, Mass., succeeded in having a bill reintroduced last month to the Massachusetts legislature that would require gyms to post warning signs and provide hearing protection devices if the volume exceeds 90 decibels.
Movies Action movies are the worst offenders when it comes to sadistically loud soundtracks, says Dr. J. Thomas Roland Jr. of New York University. Some theaters and screening rooms even play soundtracks for dramas at painfully high levels.
According to published reports, the National Association of Theater Owners has formed a task force to determine how loud movies should be played. Roland suggests that soundtracks be played no louder than 70 decibels (about the volume of a conversation).
Dance clubs and bars Sir George Martin, the producer for the Beatles, recently told National Public Radio that it was "God's sense of humor" to rob him of the sense that brought him his greatest pleasure and enduring fame. Martin, who is now going deaf, made an unknowing Faustian bargain in his youth: Teens in the 1960s rocked out to loud music with the same sense of impunity that people sucked on cigarettes in the 1930s, he mused, when "Nobody told them they were dying from cancer."
"I see a lot of musicians whose hearing has been blasted away," reports Roland.
Many kids flock to rock and rap concerts to feel the communal vibe of a bone-quivering mega-bass, unaware that those low tones are in some ways more menacing than higher-pitched sounds. The thump-thump pulse that you feel resonating in your chest means the music "is vibrating through your bones and directly through to your cochlea," Roland says. And wearing earplugs offers only partial protection, he adds, because they "only block out the higher frequencies."
-- Sheila Anne Feeney, New York Daily News
To protect yourself:
* Use earplugs. If you're routinely exposed to loud noise, carry earplugs. It doesn't much matter what kind.
* Bone up -- and teach your kids -- about the hazards of grooving to personal stereos. Teens often pump up the volume to drown out annoying adult voices. But if headphone-wearers can't hear normal voices around them, it means the music is too loud.
* If the management of a restaurant, club or movie house refuses to dial down the volume, ask for your money back. Or just leave.
-- New York Daily News
Pub Date: 02/14/99