- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 11, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) — Scientists have been accumulating evidence in lab animals for years that a pill might be able to reduce the damage loud noise does to a person’s hearing. Now they’re sending in the Marines.

Starting in a few months, a group of 600 Marines at Camp Pendleton in California will face rifle training with not only foam plugs in their ears, but also a drink that tastes very much like Wild Berry Zinger herbal tea.

They’ll take it with every meal during their two weeks of the noisy training, an experience that normally erodes a bit of hearing ability from about 10 percent of trainees. And if all goes as hoped, hearing tests will show that a substance dissolved in the drink made a difference.

It’s the latest wrinkle in research toward finding a pill that will help protect and even treat hearing loss from exposure to loud noise. While the effort is hardly new, experts say it has picked up momentum in the past few years.

Nobody is saying such a pill could replace earplugs and other mechanical ear protection. But it’s clear that the standard protections so far haven’t prevented a wide-ranging problem.

Noise-induced hearing loss is one of the most common occupational diseases and the second most self-reported occupational illness or injury, the federal government says.

About 10 million Americans have permanent hearing loss from loud noise, either a long-term exposure or in a sudden burst such as an explosion. And an estimated 30 million people are thought to be exposed to hazardous levels of noise at work, such as in mining, construction, manufacturing and agriculture.

Professional musicians must take care as well. Jim tenBensel, a freelance musician in Minneapolis, packs a pair of earplugs in his trombone case. Not long ago, during a big-band-style performance when he wasn’t wearing them, he found himself ducking and putting his hands over his ears when a trumpet behind him started wailing.

“It hurt,” recalled Mr. tenBensel, 62. “It was just a knee-jerk reaction.”

The problem isn’t just in the workplace. Hobbies such as recreational shooting, motorcycling and snowmobiling pose a risk, too.

Earplugs and specialized sound-deadening earmuffs are clearly helpful, but they’re not always enough. Some sounds overwhelm them. Some people don’t wear them when they should, and other people are unusually susceptible to hearing damage.

“Noise-induced hearing loss is such a common cause of hearing loss, and we haven’t been very effective in ways to manage it,” said Sharon Kujawa, director of audiology at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

“For as much government regulation as we have for noise exposure on the job, it’s a very difficult thing to get people to comply, and also to carry that out in their leisure activities,” she said.

Scientists have pursued a variety of approaches toward an ear-fortifying pill. In 1994, for example, Israeli researchers reported that magnesium supplements helped military recruits avoid hearing loss over two months of noisy basic training. These days, much of the work focuses on antioxidants, the chemical class that most famously includes vitamins C and E.

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