The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Tinnitus strikes in Simpson: Earthquake-damaged lights torment students, University adopts prevention strategies

4 min read
Norah Walsh sitting on her red chair, and has her ear covered with her fingers while looking stressed.

UMW has mandated that students in Simpson Library wear earplugs and noise-canceling headphones. | Abbey Magnet, The Weekly Ringer



As of April 1, every employee at Simpson Library and the most frequent library attendees—together, about a fifth of the UMW population—were diagnosed with tinnitus caused by overexposure to the ringing noise emitted by the lights in the building. To mitigate further exposure, the University has implemented guidelines that mandate library attendees to don earplugs and noise-canceling headphones before they enter the building, and students have also been directed to distance themselves from the lights by walking down the middle of the hallways in a crouched position or “army crawling” across the floor if they must browse the aisles.

The ringing started on Aug. 23, 2018, after a 5.8 magnitude earthquake hit the Piedmont region whose effects were felt in the Fredericksburg area. The earthquake caused the entire building to shake, dropping debris from the bridge to the HCC and vibrating the wires in the lightbulbs—the source of the ringing.

“It’s like a dog whistle,” said Associate Editor Callie Harkins, a sophomore political science major, about what the lights sound like. “It’s so high pitched that even your music can’t block it out, and it’s constant—there’s no escaping it.”

Students who studied in the library suffered residual effects from the ringing, such as the noise being stuck in their heads for hours after they left the building. Some wrote it off as a mere annoyance, unaware of the effects they could suffer from spending too much time around the lights. 

“I had noticed the ringing before, and the noise stuck around in my head after I left the library sometimes, so I started avoiding the library because it was too much,” said News Editor Ky Huynh, a sophomore English major. “But with only a month left in the semester, I really needed to have a quiet place to do my work, so I thought that it would be okay.”

She continued, “I went up to the Nests, but they were all occupied, so I found a desk on the perimeter of the building, but all I could hear was the lights ringing.” 

According to Huynh, she left 30 minutes later because the noise was too overwhelming and annoying. After she left, she heard the ringing in her head well into the evening, but it was gone when she woke up the following day. 

Other students report suffering from more severe effects and have sought professional medical assistance. 

“I thought I had blown out my eardrums while fixing the broadcasting volume on the soundboard in the WMWC radio station,” said Sports and Photo Editor Abbey Magnet, a junior communication and digital studies major who DJs with WMWC. “So I went to the doctor, but I was actually diagnosed with tinnitus caused by my overexposure to the lights in Simpson Library.”

She continued, “I was super mad because I had just started studying at the library after my class got moved to the HCC after Monroe closed down, and I thought that this would be my trick to becoming even more of an academic weapon.” 

Students who score prime study real estate in the Eagle’s Nests could avoid the ringing noise, though it takes careful planning and posture.

“The only place I can find any asylum from the ringing is up in the Nests,” said Charlie Li, a senior communication and digital studies major. “The cubicles provide some sort of sound blocking that actually maintains the quiet atmosphere the fourth floor is supposed to offer.”

He continued, “But it’s a little awkward to be tall and sitting in the cubicles because if you’re on the top level then you have to crouch down or else the ringing doesn’t get blocked and you face the same problem as the other locations in the library.” 

According to UMW Facilities, the light bulbs are designed to be long-lasting so their wires are more durable and sustain vibration for a prolonged time without breaking. As the lights were replaced right before the earthquake, they are not due for a replacement for another five years, hence the adoption of mitigation strategies so that students can access Simpson risk-free. 

As a result of the new guidelines, the reference desk is now located in the back of the on-campus Panera. However, students are prohibited from exiting the library without checking out their borrowed items, so they must reserve their books online to pick up at Panera as there is no longer a way to select a book from the shelves and check it out within the library. 

Furthermore, all library employees and attendees are mandated to wear appropriate protective gear to avoid contracting tinnitus as they work in the building to retrieve books from the shelves. However, as many have already contracted tinnitus, they are now subject to listening to nothing but the ringing in their heads, which is isolated and amplified by earplugs and noise-canceling headphones that eliminate any other ambient noise that may be more pleasurable and offer some relief. 

“It’s so messed up because we should have been wearing this gear the whole time,” said a library employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We’ve all been suffering for as long as we’ve attended the University, and those of us who work at Simpson are the most affected because we could never escape it.” 

This story is a part of our April Fool’s edition and is intended to be satirical in nature. All information or quotations are made up and not to be taken seriously.