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Reasons for Hearing Loss: Noise Pollution Levels

A screaming child, TV on high volume, a vacuum cleaner, and music playing at full blast? And that's not even taking into account what goes on outside your house. Do you hear a lawn mower, honking cars, sirens, maybe even ear-shattering sounds of a construction or a work site - a saw, a drill, a jackhammer, and all the other high-pitched noises that make you want to cover your ears and run for the hills?

Welcome to the modern – and very noisy – world. Unless you live in a quiet rural area (and even there you can hear tractors and other farm equipment) or under a rock somewhere, you are no stranger to the phenomenon commonly known as noise pollution or  "environmental noise."

It is not without reason that noise pollution is often referred to as the "modern unseen plague." It may be unseen but certainly not unheard! It disturbs us to varying degrees of discomfort practically everywhere we go, day and night. And, besides leading to hearing loss, it impacts our physical and mental health in more ways than one.

Noise Pollution Levels Are A Clear and Present Danger

World Health Organization (WHO) is just one of many groups that sounds an alarm about the dangers of noise pollution. "Excessive noise," the WHO warns on its website, "seriously harms human health and interferes with people's daily activities at school, at work, at home and during leisure time."

How big of a problem is this? According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), an estimated 30 million Americans are exposed to dangerous noise levels on a regular basis, an increase of 10 million from just a few years ago. And, of course, many millions more are impacted by noise pollution worldwide, so it is fair to say that environmental noise is a growing global problem.

And "problem" is the right word to describe the effects of noise pollution, of prolonged exposure to sounds exceeding 80 decibels (dB), which, the WHO says, can cause a number of health conditions. Among them:

  • Hearing loss
  • Tinnitus, also referred to as ringing in the ears
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Pain and fatigue
  • Poor work and school performance
  • Speech problems
  • Hormonal responses (stress hormones), and their consequences on human metabolism and immune system problems.

Causes of Noise Pollution

Noise Pollution Levels
Loud traffice noise has potential to reach levels that can cause hearing loss

Here's another alarming statistic: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans cite noise as the biggest problem affecting their neighborhoods – even more than crime. Some 138 million people (nearly half of the entire population) are regularly exposed to noise levels labeled as excessive by the Environmental Protection Agency.

What noises do people find most disturbing to their sense of hearing and overall well-being? A survey conducted several years ago among residents of Curitiba, a Brazilian city with the population of 1.6 million, showed that traffic was the number one culprit (73 percent), followed by noisy neighbors (38 percent).

It is not surprising that survey participants were most impacted by loud traffic since most urban sounds far exceed the 80 dB threshold. For example, a garbage truck registers at 100 dB, a car horn at 110dB, and an ambulance siren at 120.

Overall, neighborhood noise was cited as the most disturbing type of noise, as all of the study participants indicated at least one of the items belonging to this category: neighbors, animals, sirens, construction, night clubs, toys, and domestic electric appliances.

How did this entire ruckus affect the respondents? Irritability was the primary result of exposure to noise, followed by difficulty to concentrate (42 percent), sleeping disorders (20 percent) and headaches (20 percent).

It goes without saying that these findings are not limited to Brazil but can be applied to any industrialized nation, including the United States.

So the question is, what can you do to reduce noise pollution and protect your hearing?

Reducing Noise Pollution

Some cities are taking concrete steps to reduce environmental noise by passing noise pollution laws and regulations. For example, authorities in Edmonton, Canada, recently outlawed very loud motorcycles. Anyone with a two-wheeler that emits more than 92 dB while idling and 96 dB while running can get a $250 fine.

That is certainly a laudable move and more tangible measures like this one are needed in all the noisy urban centers. In the meantime, however, there are steps you can take to protect your hearing and health in general against harmful noise pollution. Better Hearing Institute advises these common-sense guidelines:

  • Know which noises can cause damage (those above 80 decibels), including jet engines, lawn mowers, motorcycles, chainsaws, powerboats, and personal stereos. If you have to raise your voice to shout over the noise to be heard by someone within an arm's length away, the noise is probably in this range. To educate yourself about noise levels, check out Sight and Hearing Association's "Noise Thermometer" for noise level measurements.
  • Since loud music is a well-known source of toxic noise, keep the volume of your iPod or other personal audio equipment at a comfortably low volume and take frequent breaks from listening.
  • When involved in loud work or recreational activities, wear hearing protective devices (HPDs) such as earplugs or earmuffs. HPDs are required by law to be labeled with a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) that is based on performance obtained under ideal laboratory conditions, so keep this in mind when shopping around.If you think you might have hearing loss, get tested and treated as soon as possible.

To learn more about hearing protection devices and to have your hearing tested, visit a hearing professional near you today to get started on the path to healthier hearing.

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