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Summer Concerts and Noise-Induced Hearing Loss: Pack your Earplugs

With the summer and fall concert series in full swing, there’s a lot of happy couples spreading their blankets on the expanse of lawn, opening a nice bottle of merlot and enjoying the tunes of their youth. Nothing goes better with a Whitesnake concert than a nice merlot.

So you packed the pate and crackers, the wine and maybe a couple of those low beach chairs to enjoy a few hours of music. Millions of people attend these concerts each summer and fall. They’re fun. But hate to ruin this idyllic evening with a little dose of reality.

You can damage your ears permanently in less than three hours of loud (really loud) music – the kind you hear at summer concerts. Yes we're talking hearing loss. Whose touring this summer? Well, Gwen Stefani is making the summer tent circuit. Hey Champ, No Doubt and Whitesnake are filling summer venues. Lost Trailers, Foghat and Rust Landers are touring. So whether it’s the older tunes or the latest in cutting edge rock, there’s a tour bus for you.

The Problem is the dBs

The Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel recently reported on sound pressure levels at outdoor concerts. Basically, sound pressure levels are how loud the sound at the music fest gets depending on where you are seated at the concert. The numbers won’t surprise you until you understand the impact these high dB rock gatherings under the stars have on your hearing, whether you’re 18 and getting as close as you can to the 10 foot wall of speakers, or a 55-year-old taking the grandkids to see No Doubt. (Aren’t you nice.)

The report used sound-level measuring gear at different locations for different groups and gauged the sound levels to every day sounds for easy comparison. The findings?

summer concert dB chart
Summer concert noise compared to everday noise levels (Courtesy Journal Sentinel)

As seen in the above chart the levels recorded at these concerts are quite high and when compared to sounds we would never want to sit and listen to for very long such as chain saws, subways and airplane jets the numbers are surprising. For example, if someone sat near the speaker at the Hey Chap concert the noise they were exposure to would be equivalent to having a chainsaw running next to their ear. Ouch!

“Rock and Roll Will Never Die” – Neil Young

That may be true, but it will take its toll on your hearing.

The investigators behind the Journal Sentinel’s report used standard sound pressure level measuring equipment to gather the data on just how much music the typical concert goer gets during a few sets by their favorite groups. So, you’re thinking, rock is supposed to be loud and you don’t do it all the time and it’ll only be for two or three hours (don’t forget the opening act) so why not, right? Well, the fact is, sounds this loud can actually do permanent damage to the hearing mechanism in as little as 60 minutes.

In the Journal Sentinel's report they compare their measurements to those recommended by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safe duration standards for noise exposure.OSHA's safe duration standards are as follows:

  • Sounds reaching 95 dB A, limit to 4 hours
  • Sounds reaching 100 dB A, limit to 2 hours
  • Sounds reaching 105 dB A, limit to 1 hour
  • Sound reaching 110 dB A, limit to ½ hour (this is at the speaker)

(Note: dB A refers to the decibel level measured utilizing an A-weighted sound level meter which measure the sound most comparable to how the human auditory system hears)

It is important to note that many noise experts report OSHA standards are out of date and many noise experts and hearing professionals now follow The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) best practices for safe duration noise exposure - which are much more aggresive. 

NIOSH best practices suggest a noise of 95 dB A would only be safe for <1 hour (not 4 hours as suggested by OSHA). NIOSH's best practices recommendations are based on recent research demonstrating noise 95 dB A for more than an hour has the chance to cause hearing damage.

The following are NIOSH's safe duration standards - as you will see they are much more aggressive than OSHA's:

  • Sounds reaching 95 dB A, limit to 1 hours
  • Sounds reaching 100 dB A, limit to 15 minutes
  • Sounds reaching 105 dB A, limit to 4 minutes
  • Sounds reaching 110 dB A, limit to 1 min 29 seconds

No matter which best practice standards are utilized, both translate into the same message: concerts are loud and will cause damage if hearing protection is not worn given the fact that levels at most concerts are well over 95 dB A and persons attend a concert for well over an hour

So to put it into perspective, based on the Journal Sentinel's data, if you were seated in the 10th row at the Whitesnake concert your time to listen safely without hearing protection is less than 1 hour. Anything over one hour is putting you at risk for noise induced hearing loss.

Even MTV Says “Turn It Down”

A recent noise-induced hearing loss study conducted at Vanderbilt University’s Bill Wilkerson Center, in conjunction with clearly shows that noise-induced hearing loss is on the rise. The study, involving 2,500 MTV respondents, showed that 32% of concert goers reported tinnitus – ringing in the ears – after attending a rock concert. The Center’s director and chair of the Department of Otolaryngology at Vanderbilt, Roland Eavey, M.D., didn’t pull any punches when the report was published.

“Hearing loss is so prevalent that it has become the norm,” Eavey stated in a report published by the Vanderbilt Medical Center. “We know where we are headed; it would be a miracle if we don’t wind up with [hearing loss] problems later on. It is kind of like the bus is heading down towards the brick wall and you can see that the crash is going to come.”

Eavey continues, “Do you need to show that the bus crashed into the wall before you can report this? You either have to move the bus or push that wall way back. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Education is the Answer

The report, coupled with the tests conducted by the Journal Sentinel send clear signals that if we, as individuals, don’t take steps to protect our hearing, continued exposure to loud noise – like the noise you hear at a summer concert – can cause permanent-you-have-it-forever hearing loss in as little as three hours.

Outdoor concert
Don't stop the music, rock responsibly

So, what can you do to protect the hearing that you still have left? Common sense comes into play, here.

First, sit in the back rows. Don’t rush to get as close as you can to the wall of speakers. Give your ears a little bit of a break. Remember, if you’re at a No Doubt concert, sitting in Row M, your ears are still consuming 107.5 dBs – enough to cause permanent hearing loss or permanent tinnitus. Imagine carrying that around with you for the rest of your life and for what – three hours of No Doubt? Is it worth it?

Not much of a decision, is it?

Next, if it’s a marathon music fest, a la Woodstock, take a walk to get away from the music for an hour or two. Give your ears a break from the constant assault.

Sit off to one side or the other of the stage. This way, the sound wave tsunami produced by stacks of amps, woofers and tweeters doesn’t hit you smack in the ear drum.

Most importantly wear ear plugs. You can get specially filtered custom earplugs for music which allow you to protect your hearing while still enjoying the quality of the music.

Finally, if you have been at the concert for multiple hours unprotected and you hear a jingle in your ears leave early. It’s the long-term exposure to loud music that causes hearing loss so shorten the term – even if it means you miss the three encores. Your long-term hearing is more important than any concert.

So, along with the crudités and dip, the salsa, chips and fine wine, pack a pair of ear plugs and give yourself and your ears a break. The pate tastes fine, the tunes are all toe tappers and your ears will thank you the next day and long in to the future.

Rock on! Just do it wisely now.

For more information on NIOSH Noise Standards please visit: Criteria for a Recommended Standard: Occupational Noise Exposure


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