That ringing in your ears after a loud concert is more than just an annoyance. For a trio of local companies, it’s a threat to public health.

They’re pushing for a first-of-its-kind ordinance in Minneapolis that would require just about every music-oriented venue in the city to make earplugs available at no cost to patrons, the city or the venues.

A proposed ordinance sponsored by new Council Member Jacob Frey would affect about 185 businesses in the city, largely bars and clubs that offer amplified music for concerts and dancing. The proposed rules get a public hearing April 1.

“Going to one of these venues, a lot of people just don’t know about hearing loss,” said Brian Felsen, whose apparel company Locally Grown, Globally Known is working in conjunction with the Miracle-Ear Foundation and 3M to coordinate and fund the campaign.

Felsen said he hopes to “make hearing protection cool and fashionable and something that’s relevant,” just as sunglasses have become for eye protection.

The mandate would be unique nationally, though San Francisco has an ordinance that requires venues with dance floors to carry water and earplugs. But the clubs in San Francisco can charge for the earplugs. Felsen hopes to eventually take the Minneapolis free model, which would offer free 3M earplugs in dispensers, to other cities.

The club industry seems to have taken the proposal in stride so far, since the tiny foam devices would be free.

“My position would be that if the government can provide a tool for us to do good or to provide safety and comfort for our customers, I’m all supportive of doing the right thing because it’s at no cost so it’s a no-brainer,” said Deepak Nath, one of the owners of the Pourhouse on Hennepin Avenue.

‘Personal responsibility’

But the proposal didn’t sit well with attorney Cam Winton, who ran as an independent for mayor this fall.

“Just because something’s a good idea doesn’t mean government should mandate it,” said Winton, relating it to a hypothetical requirement for outdoor patios to have sunscreen. “There is a role in our society for personal responsibility.”

Winton also has concerns with City Hall requiring businesses to carry one company’s product. “That’s not how we do business in this country,” he said.

Nath described himself as a conservative and said he’s not a “big fan” of being mandated to do it. But he said the city should take advantage of the free offer and he knows Frey’s motivations are pure.

Jason Jones, 3M’s marketing manager for their hearing solutions business, described himself as a “small government guy” and said he was initially surprised the ordinance was moving forward with the City Council. But he felt it was a sincere effort by Felsen and the Miracle-Ear Foundation, adding that 3M, the largest seller of earplugs in the world, has plenty of other ways to get exposure. Earplugs also aren’t expensive, with a suggested retail price of about 12 cents a pack.

“I look at it as a way to get across to more people a message around hearing protection,” Jones said.

Bert Schlauch, a hearing expert at the University of Minnesota, said concerts, work-related noise and guns are the primary causes of noise-induced hearing loss.

An insidious risk

Earplugs can make a big difference for concertgoers, according to a 2009 study conducted by Schlauch and other researchers. The study sent subjects to concerts with and without earplugs. Many more concertgoers without earplugs experienced temporary hearing loss than those who wore them. Pop shows had higher spikes in volumes than heavy metal concerts, interestingly, because of the crowd noise.

Getting concert attendees to wear them is another issue, however. Schlauch said some of their participants dropped out of the study after learning they would have to wear earplugs — despite the offer of free concert tickets.

Felsen damaged his own hearing in his youth and now totes a specially wired dummy to music festivals to illustrate the decibels emitted by people’s earbuds.

Modern research on animals also has also shown that even if people don’t lose the ability to hear low-volume sounds when exposed to loud noises, exposure can impact the ability to process loud sounds — like distinguishing a voice in a noisy restaurant. “The risk is more insidious because of that,” Schlauch said.

Jenni Hargraves, executive director of the Miracle-Ear Foundation, said the average noise level at a concert is 115 decibels. But damage can occur after just 15 minutes of exposure to 100 decibels.

She said while hearing damage often occurs gradually, “you can have hearing loss after a one-time exposure to something” extremely loud.

That was the case for Tim Whalen, a 3M employee who attended Game 7 of the World Series at the Metrodome in 1987. Volume levels during that game reached 125 decibels, the equivalent of a 727 aircraft lifting off 900 feet away, according to the U study.

Whalen attributes that game and a hunting-related shotgun blast near his head for the tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, that he has developed. “It’s very hard for me to carry on a conversation in a bar because I can’t hear certain people’s voices very well anymore,” Whalen said.

The ordinance sponsor, Frey, said the issue is only growing more urgent with the proliferation of personal audio devices, which can reach levels above 100 decibels.

“When you look at the combination of some of these kids that walk around with headphones for 95 percent of the day and then go to the club at night and blast their eardrums out again, it’s a problem,” he said.


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