- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

They’re loud — but not that loud. Despite the buzz of complaints about the surprisingly potent noisemaking capabilities of the Brood X cicadas infesting the Washington area, hearing experts say the decibel levels are harmless — probably.

“Unless you’re an extreme outdoorsman or bird-watcher, it’s not going to affect you,” said Dr. Ednan Mushtaq, a McLean-based ear, nose and throat doctor. He added with a chuckle: “We’ve heard some general complaints, but we haven’t treated anyone for cicada hearing loss.”

But the noise level produced by the bugs has piqued the interest of amateur scientists and officials. Federal and state entomologists were out yesterday measuring the decibels produced by the millions of cicadas camped in trees throughout the region.

“You can’t put the little ones next to your ear, because it hurts too much,” said Gaye L. Williams, an entomologist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture. “The big ones sound like a cat growling.”

Ms. Williams yesterday and Sunday monitored two species of cicadas outside her Annapolis office. She said decibel levels were as high as 83 and compared the chatter of one co-worker to the racket of a “low cicada.”

“I’m going to have a lot of fun with this decibel meter,” Ms. Williams said of her newly purchased tool.

Nathan Erwin, manager of the Smithsonian Institution’s Otto Orkin Insect Zoo, on Friday monitored cicadas in Northwest Washington for a segment of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

“Ours were about 71, 72 decibels,” Mr. Erwin said yesterday. “They were like loud conversations in a crowded room.”

Don M. Simonds, a retired CIA information manager who lives in the Kensington area, said the cacophony in his neighborhood is like a musical performance that never ends.

Mr. Simonds and a neighbor spent Saturday and Sunday monitoring noise levels near a neighborhood tree.

“My neighbor measured 98 decibels,” he said. “That’s something less than a jackhammer, but equivalent to a full symphony orchestra.”

Several ear, nose and throat doctors yesterday compared the cicada racket to exposure to a lawn mower or leaf blower — and some even recommended earplugs for people with sensitive hearing.

“If you’re a lawn-maintenance man, you’ll want to wear earplugs or even the heavy-duty earmuffs airline people wear,” said Dr. Norman L. Barr, a McLean-based ear, nose and throat doctor. “It’s got to be more than 80 decibels here. It’s an awful racket. I can hear them through the walls of my office.”

The familiar cicada buzz is the mating call of the male of the species, which has tiny noisemaking membranes that click, like a bottletop, inside a hollow chamber in the abdomen — amplifying the sound.

Dr. Mushtaq, who also thinks that the cicada noise in Northern Virginia exceeds 80 decibels, said he and other local residents have found it impossible to ignore the creatures.

“I do think a lot of people with hearing problems identify with this buzzing noise,” Dr. Mushtaq said. “They hear the same thing in their heads.”

According to Dr. Mark L. Fox, an ear, nose and throat specialist with the Medical Society of the State of New York, the human threshold of hearing loss is 85 to 90 decibels.

“I would advise people with sensitive ears to wear earplugs, if possible, or leave the D.C. area until the cicadas are finished,” said Dr. Fox, whose practice is based in Scarsdale, N.Y.

Ms. Williams, the Annapolis entomologist, said she has found at least one effective way of silencing the cicadas.

“One of my dogs is eating them like they’re going out of style,” Ms. Williams said. “She looks visibly rounder. She’ll have to go on a diet after the cicadas are gone.”

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