THREE YEARS ago Steve Jones, 32, left a Manchester club with deadened hearing. At university he had gone to discos every week; at 29 he'd started clubbing again and found the noise level had increased significantly. "There's much more bass in dance music now. I think I accumulated hearing damage until that night in a club just pushed me over a threshold. I didn't have problems until I went there."
Since then, Steve has found it difficult to follow conversation in a noisy room, or to tell in which direction a phone is ringing. But it's the legacy of permanent tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, that bothers him most.
"It's a nasty noise like a spade scraping along the ground, and it's almost constant. When I got it, I felt angry and was frightened it would get worse until I jumped off a bridge or something."
Although for many years studies looking for a link between leisure noise and hearing loss produced mixed results, recently more sensitive acoustic tests have uncovered worrying evidence that Steve is just one of many such sufferers.
Research at Keele University picked those most and least exposed to entertainment noise amongst 15 to 23-year-olds. Even amongst the youngest, those most exposed to noise showed evidence of loss of hearing acuity. "In the older subjects there were also very sharp gaps in hearing in the high frequency range," says Ted Evans, Keele professor of auditory physiology and vice- chair of the British Society of Audiology. For many years Evans has also performed tests on undergraduates' hearing function. "These results have got worse - 50 per cent of students picked at random show signs of hearing damage. Clubbing is the new ingredient on the scene, and people seem to be exposed for longer."
Research by Professor Adrian Davis at the Medical Research Council's Institute of Hearing Research found that the proportion of people exposed to high noise levels at clubs has increased substantially. In 1980-1984, six per cent of 18 to 25-year-olds received noise doses in clubs exceeding safety standards; by the mid-1990s that rose to 18 per cent.
Club music can often reach 110-120 decibels, yet even at 105 decibels, the safe maximum exposure time is 15 minutes. Mark Anderson, youth service project co-ordinator at the British Tinnitus Association, believes that in 10-20 years clubbing and hearing loss will emerge as a serious issue. Indeed, after he developed tinnitus himself following a loud concer, he became so concerned that he produced an education pack warning of the dangers of loud music.
What seems certain is that young clubbers are storing up trouble for the future. "There is a big question over what will happen in 20 years' time when normal ageing adds to hearing loss," says Professor Evans.
For Steve Jones the damage has already been done, and although treatment has helped him cope, he has had to alter his lifestyle. "At work I've had to ask colleagues not to drop things or slam doors, and find out about fire drills beforehand. But my biggest change is not to go to clubs or concerts. I can't even go to the cinema or to the pub at night. They're just too noisy."
Advice for clubbers
n Get away from the music for 10 minutes every hour, to give the inner ear hair cells the chance to recover.
n Keep as far away from the speakers as possible.
n Ear plugs will keep potential damage to a minimum.
n Go clubbing less often, and for shorter periods.
n Be extra careful if hearing loss runs in your family.
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