What? Protecting Hearing at Festival

Ear protection can help reduce hearing loss at loud events like Crucian Christmas Festival. (Photo by Mat Probasco)

Twenty-something years ago, Adam Shapiro left his first Carnival experience with his ears ringing. An ear-nose-and-throat expert, Dr. Shapiro knew prolonged exposure to loud sounds could cause permanent hearing loss. The next Carnival, he handed out earplugs. The gifts were not well received, he said Thursday.

People didn’t want to hear it, so to speak.

“I pushed the idea around to everybody and they all shot it down. They didn’t want anything to prevent them from hearing what was going on,” said Shapiro, who sees patients for hearing loss and other maladies on St. Thomas and St. Croix.

The severity of potential hearing loss at Festival or around any other loud activity depends on several factors: volume, duration of exposure, and how much damage a person already has, he said.

Standing in front of a tower of soca-blasting speakers can temporarily stun the cells in the ear that register sound. The brain fills in this void, usually with a high pitch. The louder and longer lasting this pitch, the worse the damage, Shapiro said.

After a time of relative quiet, the ringing often goes away. But, if a person goes from the concert to running an outboard motor for several hours, or working in a loud machine shop, the cells may not recover. Once hearing damage is permanent, it becomes easier to sustain further damage, he said.

“There’s a formula for the amount of decibels we hear to the amount of time that we’re exposed to things. We can tolerate really loud noise for a short period of time and softer noises for a longer period of time,” Shapiro said. “If you’re right next to a big steel pan band, those are pretty loud noises.”

People in the band should probably wear some sort of ear protection, he said. There are custom-made fitted earplugs that allow musicians to hear what’s going on while still protecting their hearing.

Protecting children is just as important. While kids are able to quickly bounce back from injuries that might take adults longer to recover from, hearing is not one of those things.

“Our ears are pretty much developed fully at birth. They can sustain noise injury as much as anybody else,” Shapiro said. Hearing damage at a young age can lead to more easily damaged hearing as an adult. “You have some of the protection of the outer ear hair cells that get sort of worn away by the initial hearing loss.”

Festivals, carnivals, fireworks, and other loud events of relative short-term exposure can call attention to a person’s hearing, but Shapiro warned everyday mid-volume noises can be even more dangerous if experienced over long periods.

“Dishwashers, lawnmowers, weed whackers, and all kinds of stuff that people are commonly exposed to can take a toll on us,” he said. “And once you lose your hearing — right now in 2023 — we don’t have a way of having your hearing grow back.”