As residents in Toronto’s west end endure painful screeches from passing TTC subway trains, at least one doctor warns prolonged exposure to such noise poses a hearing loss risk.
Tamar Fernandes first spoke with Global News in November and voiced concerns about the excessive, extraordinary squealing noises made by passing subway trains — sounds made hundreds of times throughout the day and into the night — outside of her condo west of Islington subway station.
She said the problem has been going on since the late summer. For periods of time that can last for a few weeks, nearby residents can hear high-pitched screeches coming from the subway trains before the problem goes away for a while. But throughout the fall and into the winter, the cycle repeats itself.
“It disrupts your life. You can’t sleep. You can’t invite people over and have conversations. I have had people to dinner, and every few minutes it’s like, ‘What’s going on?’ And then I feel bad because I’ve learned about the health impacts of excessive noise and I don’t want to have people exposed to that noise,” Fernandes recently told Global News.
“I’m tired, I think I’m grumpy. I’m distracted. It’s actually quite difficult to go about doing your daily activities.”
Since the problem began, she has regularly documented the noisy periods on social media. Fernandes frequently posts videos at various hours of the day and night. She said she feels as though she doesn’t get a meaningful response from the TTC.
“It’s been a frustrating process … I don’t get any acknowledgement from them that it’s damaging mental health and ability to enjoy your home and live in your home. And also, I’m a TTC rider; I have to listen to this when I’m commuting to work,” Fernandes said, adding that she has to wear headphones.
In 2017, a study published in the Journal of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery said that although noise levels from the Toronto transit system are within acceptable levels of safe noise exposure, frequent cumulative exposure could place individuals at risk for noise-induced hearing loss.
Dr. Vincent Lin, an otolaryngologist with Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, was involved in that study. He said the overall public goal is to have “good hearing for life,” but when asked about the screeches that residents in Etobicoke have had to deal with, he said there are serious risks.
“This is very kind of high-level, high-frequency sound … so chronic exposure to this type of noise would definitely put someone at risk for developing noise-induced hearing loss,” Lin told Global News.
“We know through public health that chronic exposure to noise — and it doesn’t have to be very loud — makes people at high risk of developing chronic illnesses like depression and hypertension.”
Lin said everyone will have a different threshold when it comes to tolerance of noise, noting people can develop issues within weeks or up to months after exposure.
“Definitely, this intensity puts them at risk,” he said, noting a common symptom of such hearing loss is ringing in the ears.
“Often, it will get better, but now we know through our research that even when patients have the ringing that goes away, there probably is some damage to nerves within the inner ear that, over the long-term, will predispose them to hearing loss so every cell counts, so you want to save as many as you can.”
Back in November, the TTC committed to replacing a couple of broken rail-greasing machines near Islington Station. The grease helps reduce friction between the wheels and the tracks, which helps reduce noise.
Global News was initially told by officials that the machines would be fixed in January, but that deadline came and went. Now the transit agency says it hopes the machines are operational within the next couple of weeks.
“Unfortunately, we did give the community some assurances these would be installed by January; we haven’t been able to meet that commitment. There were some issues with supply on the side of the contractor. We did work through that,” TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said, adding that staff are considering the use of more grease and possibly adding more machines.
“No, it is not normal for that particular area. It has been quieter, and our objective is to make it quieter. This is literally a case of a squeaky wheel getting grease. We just need to get the grease applied in the right amount and get that noise brought down.”
However, the TTC said the fix could also be part of another problem — one that has been another major source of complaints. Global News has been contacted by residents along Line 2 near Bathurst, Pape and Greenwood stations about a noticeable increase in the intensity of vibrations. The problems were first noticed in October. But residents said over the past month or so, the problem has worsened.
“In the last four to five weeks, it’s really gotten exponentially louder. You’re hearing almost every train every three, four or five minutes, depending on the schedule,” Chet Wydrzynski, who lives steps from Greenwood Station, told Global News last month.
“My mom lives in Windsor and has probably visited me 40 or 50 times over the last few years and stays overnight. She’s never mentioned the subway before, but it’s woken her up twice lately, just in the last few days she’s been visiting.”
Green said the vibrations and an associated clunking noise are being caused by “wheel flats,” which are flat spots developing on subway car wheels. He said special monitoring devices check wheels for issues and determine which ones are in need of truing. For wheels that require maintenance, a machine makes the necessary fixes to return the wheels to their original shape and specifications, which should minimize noise and vibrations.
However, TTC staff are trying to see if the application of grease on tracks to reduce the squealing is leading to “wheel flats.”
“There’s no question that over the last several months, the noise and vibration issue that we believe is associated with those flats has increased. We’ve heard that from our customers. Our commitment fully is to get that noise and vibration reduced, and that’s what we’re working on right now,” Green said.
“We need to determine if, in fact, there is a correlation between the grease that we’re putting on the rails and the skidding and the flats that are being caused.”
Green insisted that staff are taking the issue seriously when asked about the complaints people from across Line 2 have shared with Global News.
To help TTC engineers with their investigation, the transit agency called upon federal researchers at the National Research Council of Canada. The NRCC has been working with the TTC since January.
An NRCC spokesperson previously told Global News the organization conducts “scientific and technical research and testing in its facilities” for various clients. The spokesperson said he was unable to get into the process and results of this testing due to a non-disclosure agreement, something commonly put in place with NRCC clients.
When asked about the disclosure of NRCC research, Green said the transit agency will review releasing more details, something Fernandes said she wants to see.
“Make the research that you’re doing with the National Research Council, be open about it. There’s no reason to have a non-disclosure agreement about research going on relating to a public service. There’s no proprietary information that needs to be protected,” she said.
— With files from Fareah Islam, Niza Nando and Don Mitchell