Dancing with earplugs in? ‘I’d rather have a ring in my ears’

In the Rotterdam club Poing, the sound thumps against the eardrums.Statue Arie Kievit

Britt van Rij (18) and Carolijn van Straaten (19) quickly arrange their clothes before entering the main hall of the Rotterdam pop stage Annabel. The number Wild Thoughts by Rihanna blares from the speakers, but neither of them wear hearing protection.

‘My father has to do that,’ says Van Rij. “But good earplugs are expensive and they don’t fit well.” Then rather a ring in the ears when she is in bed after going out. “I have that often enough,” she says. ‘Always, actually’, adds Van Straaten. ‘Very interesting,’ says Van Rij.

The laconic attitude towards hearing damage is shared by many visitors who come to the danceable hits in Annabel on Saturday evening. This is in stark contrast to the urgent appeal from ear doctors, hearing care professionals and the Hoormij patient association. They believe that the sound in nightlife venues, concert halls and festivals should be softer. Hearing specialists see an increase in the number of young people knocking on the door with tinnitus due to noise damage. This is due to loud music in the nightlife, but also, for example, due to headphones at too high a volume.

Medical student Kate Frenzen (21) has learned all about it. Between 1 and 2 million Dutch people suffer from tinnitus. In 50 thousand of them, the ringing, ringing or whistling in their ears is so bad that it takes over their lives. Yet she has forgotten her earplugs. ‘I can immediately see all dying hearing cells in front of me. But yeah, now I’m not going back home.’

Responsible volume

In 2018, the government agreed with festivals, music venues, student associations, cinemas and gyms that they would limit the noise level to 103 decibels. That covenant expires on December 7, and that is an excellent moment to adjust the standard, according to the Dutch Association for Ear-Nose-Eyeology. The volume of the music should not exceed 100 decibels. The night catering industry, which did not sign the covenant four years ago, should also believe in a responsible volume. State Secretary Maarten van Ooijen of Health, Welfare and Sport is awaiting advice from the Health Council in November before taking any measures.

‘Even at 100 decibels you will incur damage without hearing protection’, says Henri Marres, professor of ENT surgery at Radboud University and chairman of the ENT doctors’ association. ‘Earplugs muffle the sound by about 15 to 20 decibels. At a limit of 100 decibels, you fall, with earplugs in, just within the safe range of 80 to 85 decibels. That is the limit set by the Working Conditions Act: at more than 85 decibels you are obliged to wear hearing protection.’

Just below the speakers in Annabel, Karel Brand (23) is dancing exuberantly. He is one of the few in the room whose ears sparkle with earplugs. “Hearing damage is no joke,” he says. ‘I don’t feel like tinnitus’. Robert Stokroos, professor of ear surgery at the University Medical Center Utrecht, doubts whether there are actually more young people who suffer from tinnitus. The figures are difficult to compare, because there is little data from the past. ‘Nevertheless, there is no question that tinnitus is a major problem and that prevention is necessary.’

Turning back the volume knob is not the solution, says Ramon de Lima, night mayor of Amsterdam. Three notches softer doesn’t seem like much, but the decibel scale is logarithmic. This means that a reduction of three decibels is equivalent to halving the sound pressure, reducing sound perception by 20 percent. ‘This makes the experience of a club night completely different’, says De Lima. ‘When the sound becomes much weaker, you no longer feel the vibrations of the bass in your body and the buzz drowns out the music. In a nightclub you have to be able to lose yourself in the music on a swirling dance floor.’

That’s exactly what happens after midnight at Poing nightclub, a stone’s throw from Annabel. Under red fluorescent tubes, a crowd of people moves to the trance beats that Dj CyberFairy777 – with white elf wings on his back – pumps into the hall. The sound thumps against the eardrums.

At the bar is Lindsay (25), who for privacy reasons prefers not to use her last name in the newspaper. She unfolds her hand. In her palm lie two clear earplugs. “Tailor-made,” she says. “All my friends wear them too. I’m trying to become a DJ, so it’s important that I hear well.’ It is better to invest in good earplugs than to lower the volume, she thinks. ‘That way I still feel the bass in my chest, and without it I feel empty.’

‘Compare it with smoking’

‘It sounds edifying’, says professor Marres, ‘but we have to get rid of the conviction that going out is not complete without loud noise. Everyone should recognize that some things are exaggerated. To limit tinnitus, the public has to change its behavior: stand less close to the speakers, always wear earplugs and give the ears a rest now and then. Legislation for a lower volume creates little support, that should be a last measure.’ Compare it with smoking, says professor Stokroos. ‘In the past, cigarettes were everywhere on the table, but thirty years later that is unthinkable. People must now also become aware of the consequences of loud noise.’

In Poing, that consciousness slowly penetrates. “When I woke up this morning to last night’s ringing in my ears, I was still thinking about buying caps,” says Garry Satisfied (40). ‘Because now that I think about it, it’s kind of weird: I carefully select my sunglasses for the right strength and fit, but I don’t pay attention to my ears.’

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