Noisy Hong Kong needs to fight the risk of hearing loss with better protection

Peter Kammerer is acutely aware of the dangers of prolonged exposure to loud noises, as a visually impaired person who relies greatly on his hearing to get around. And the rest of us should be, too, if hearing experts are to be believed

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 May, 2017, 12:39pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 May, 2017, 7:52pm

It was surely comical to onlookers, but not to me. The noise from flat renovations near the Fortress Hill street I was crossing was so loud that I couldn’t make out the audible pedestrian signal to help me make it across safely. More to the point, the sounds barrelling down the narrow, building-lined road were so thunderous, I could barely think. So, deaf and without much thought, I walked head first into a lamp post.

Welcome to the world of the visually impaired in Hong Kong. There’s probably a video circulating online of me that’s getting a smirk or two; whoever may have been watching would have time to get their smartphone ready as I slowed when nearing the corner, and sidled in the direction I thought I needed to go. Unexpectedly, the lamp post got in the way, then a helpful hand grabbed my arm and directed me to where I should have been. Later, on the bus to work, I checked the bruise, the latest of the several I get each week while traversing this city.

Oh for the quiet life: how Hong Kong battles with noise

The renovators can’t be blamed; they can make all the noise they need to between 7am and 7pm on any day except Sundays and public holidays. Nor do I have the right to tell them to stop on those occasions when street repairs are being carried out with a jackhammer at far beyond the 85-decibel noise level at which prolonged exposure can damage hearing. When an old diesel bus roars past at 90 decibels, I similarly have no choice other than to cover my ears. For the visually impaired, who compensate for their lack of sight with a greater reliance on hearing, it’s all part of the challenge of solo city travel.

Deaf and without much thought, I walked head first into a lamp post

Number-wise, it’s not a huge demographic. The Hong Kong Blind Union says 174,800 people here, about 2.4 per cent of the population, have difficulty seeing. Of them, 7,800 can’t see at all. I’m in the latter group and rely on my cane to get an idea of where I’m at and hearing to detect open spaces, doorways, sound signals like street crossings, and potential danger.

What can’t be seen doesn’t frighten, but a siren sends a chill through me. The auditory blasts from emergency vehicles can be up to 120 decibels. They instil in me a moment of dread; what if the small amount of hearing loss experienced as they pass doesn’t return? One-time exposure to an ear-splitting noise or continuous loud sounds over a period of time can cause lasting damage. Studies of people living near London’s Heathrow airport also found higher rates of blood pressure, anxiety, heart attack and stroke.

Our city of 7.3 million people should generate a lot of complaints about noise, but there are not as many as would be expected. The police and the Environmental Protection Department received a total of 48,150 last year. The year before, there were fewer than 80 prosecutions, 67 of them for construction noise.

Traffic noise ‘could be a threat to health’, as many Hongkongers endure volumes well over WHO guidelines

But we should take noise pollution seriously. My ophthalmologist does; he puts cotton buds in his ears when he goes to dim sum restaurants. A lot of people, when asked whether sight or hearing is more important, would probably say seeing. But I follow the line taken by author Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf. She wrote: “Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus – the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man.”

Statistics show about 100,000 Hongkongers have hearing impairment. The Environmental Protection Department has various schemes under way to try and reduce noise pollution. But if the lack of regard for more easily measured roadside pollution is any guide, I wonder just how seriously the problem is being taken.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post