In much the same way that stereo headphones once began appearing on the ears of subway riders, replacing the screech of skidding steel wheels with Beethoven or the Rolling Stones, earplugs are now showing up in the ears of New Yorkers.

A small but fiercely competitive earplug trade has begun in New York City’s subway system. Small plastic buckets filled with the tiny plugs hang in subway newsstands. Posters depicting a stick figure holding his ears and gritting his teeth are plastered to steel girders and walls. One earplug merchant says the competition in the new underground business has become ”guerrilla warfare.”

”I’m in competition with other people selling the same product,” said Michael Groves. ”It’s become a jungle.”


With the current construction boom in the city, the noise level has increased and with it the use of earplugs. Some people who wear earplugs say that, astheir numbers have increased, they no longer  draw the stares they once did.


‘People Used to Move Away’

”Years ago people used to move away from me when they saw me putting my earplugs in,” said Dr. Thomas H. Fay, who has worn them in the subways for 20 years and is director of speech and hearing at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. ”Now they look at me as if I know something they don’t.”

Forty-five million hearing-protection devices, 83 percent of which were earplugs, were sold for industrial use in 1982, a 50 percent increase from the 30 million sold in 1978, according to the EAR Corporation of Indianapolis. Industry officials say that the number of earplugs sold has increased each year since 1971, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration adopted a noise-control code that requires industries to protect employees’ hearing.

In addition, according to earplug merchants and hearing specialists, there has been an increase in the number of earplugs sold to people who do not use them on the job, but no exact figures are available.

Mario D’Elia, chief dental technician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, has been wearing earplugs during his daily subway ride from Bensonhurst to 68th Street in Manhattan for the last three years.

”Once I started to wear them,” he said, ”when I would forget them I couldn’t stand the screeching. Every New Yorker is used to the noise, but once you wear earplugs you can’t do without them.’

Hearing specialists say that Americans have become increasingly aware that their ears are at risk in today’s mechanized world. Citizens’ groups have formed to combat noise. New York City adopted the nation’s first antinoise code in 1972. Since then several American cities, including Chicago and San Francisco, have passed similar legislation.

Even the United Nations has taken up the issue. In a 1979 report entitled ”The State of the Environment” the international organization singled out noise pollution, saying: ”No one can escape the unwanted sound that is called noise, a disturbance to our environment escalating so rapidly as to become one of the major threats to the quality of human life.”

Robert S. Bennin, the director of New York City’s division of noise abatement in the Department of Environmental Protection, said that New York City, by its sheer physical size, is noisier than most other cities. Because there is more construction in the city now, it is noisier than it has been since the code was passed.

”The overall noise level in the city is higher, but it is more controlled,” he said. ”The code is probably the only barrier between the normal person and total insanity.”

As an example of the increase in noise despite the code, he says, ”You may have one air compressor that’s legal, but by bringing in 10 legal air compressors, you still increase the noise by 10 times.”

Mr. Bennin said that with about one million cars in the city and 100,000 to 200,000 trucks the most pervasive noise is ”vehicular traffic.”

Dr. Fay, who is on the Environmental Control Board and helped write the city’s antinoise code, said that in New York, ”the public transit system noise is by far the most deleterious and hazardous noise source in the city to the largest number of people.” His solution, though a temporary one, is earplugs.

”If I forget my earplugs or lose them, it makes the difference between a good day and a bad day,” he said. ”I’m willing to say that we could quiet New York overnight, temporarily, if we could get a pair of earplugs into the hand of every person.”

Began in 1978

Mr. Groves first began selling earplugs in 1978 after riding the subway every day from his home in midtown Manhattan to his job at Misericordia Hospital on 233d Street in the Bronx.

During his first hour of work each day as an emergency-room receptionist, he says, he was ”nasty” to the patients and he did not know why.

”I was riding on the subway and it dawned on me: I’m being bombaed by sound,” he said. ”I said, I’m going to wear earplugs.’ ”

That was just what Mr. Groves did after a search for the perfect earplug turned up tiny yellow polyethylene plastic plugs that compress to fit in the ear and expand to block out sound. He buys these from the EAR Corporation and sells them wholesale to newsstands and by mail order from his home. 

”In the beginning, I thought it was possible to change the behavior of a large segment of the population,” he said. ”Now, I think the same thing, but only for 2.5 percent of the population. My basic belief is that half the people don’t want to put anything in their ears. Period.”

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