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May 23, 2003

Bad hearing could trigger crime

From: New Zealand Herald, New Zealand - May 23, 2003


Researchers planning a study on the effects of noisy environments on preschoolers hope to survey prison inmates to see if difficulty hearing early in life is linked to later offending.

"It's something that needs to be looked at very, very hard," says Massey University environmental health senior lecturer Stuart McLaren.

A study done 19 years ago found 60 per cent of Maori inmates and 37 per cent of Europeans had some form of hearing loss.

Some of this could be put down to glue ear and other factors, but Mr McLaren said the study was old and it was high time a more extensive one was carried out on inmates.

Some of their problems could have begun at school, or even earlier, because they had difficulty hearing and concentrating.

This would hamper their ability to learn even basic skills, and could help to explain why they turned to crime.

Mr McLaren is one of a team of "toxic noise" experts from Massey University. He and acoustics professor Philip Dickinson have carried out a pilot study looking at the impact of noise on children in early education centres, following on from studies into noisy classrooms at primary schools.

They found noisy furniture, door-banging, alarms, outside traffic and poor design of buildings could contribute to an environment in which children had difficulty concentrating and learning.

Noise levels were sometimes higher than those allowed in industry and the researchers believed the noise could affect how hearing developed in young children.

Professor Dickinson told the Weekend Herald the design and structure of some preschool facilities and classrooms - such as concrete floors, polished linoleum, hard walls and ceilings - meant it was like "teaching in a tin can".

The study has yet to receive the go-ahead from the university's ethics committee but the proposal comes amid growing global interest in the impact of noise on young ears.

Professor Dickinson is part of a World Health Organisation initiative looking at the issue in order to advise countries about how serious noisy classrooms and daycare centres can be and the long-term consequences.

He said the research in New Zealand had been initiated by an inquiry from the Department of Corrections.

"They were worried that so many of the young detainees were saying their life of crime was a necessity because they didn't have a trade, and that was because they couldn't understand anything at school.

"Relating that back to early childhood, we suspect that many preschoolers simply don't hear what the teacher says, for a variety of reasons, and this may subsequently compromise all education from that point onwards."

Susan Bowden, a health services manager for Corrections, said prisoners were not screened for hearing problems but a study sounded sensible.

But the department had to be careful about studies because prisoners were individuals and could not be treated as guinea-pigs.

Professor Dickinson said Ministry of Health statistics showed 120,000 young New Zealanders had significant hearing loss.

Assuming an average of 18 hours of exposure to noise a day, and worked out over 16 years, the statistics meant one young person under 16 suffered severe hearing loss every 53 minutes.

"It's a conglomeration of everything and it will start with perhaps even noisy incubators for premature babies - they're not quiet.

"See, we don't know how a child hears. Their hearing is perhaps more sensitive until they're fully developed."

Sue Thorne, the chief executive of the Early Childhood Council, said she would welcome a study, but would be concerned about the possibility of inhibiting learning by restricting some forms of noise.

©Copyright 2003, New Zealand Herald