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Should these noisy toys be on the naughty list?

Noise-induced hearing loss from the workplace is well-documented and the U.S. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has laws to protect workers from damaging noise. However, given much less attention is the damage and potential noise-induced hearing loss that can be sustained from very loud children's toys.

Thankfully, groups like the Sight & Hearing Association are working to educate people about the damage children's (and others') ears can sustain due to very loud toys. If you will be purchasing gifts for children this holiday season or if you have small children of your own, here's what you need to known about noisy toys and noise-induced hearing loss, as well as Sight & Hearing Associations list of noisiest toys for 2013:

Noise-induced hearing loss

noise-induced hearing loss, noisy toys, hearing loss causes

Hearing happens when sound waves enter the ear and travel through the ear canal. They reach the eardrum, which vibrates and sends the vibrations to three tiny bones in the inner ear. From here, the sound waves vibrate the fluid in the cochlea, which in turn stimulate the hair cells in the basilar membrane. The hair cells transmit the electrical signals to the auditory nerve in the brain, where they are then translated into sounds that we recognize.

However, when noise is too loud or endured for too long, noise-induced hearing loss can occur. Noise-induced hearing loss occurs when noise permanently damages, or even kills, hair cells in the inner ear, which is caused both by sound level and duration of exposure to the sound. Noise-induced hearing loss is permanent - it cannot be reversed, which is especially sad when we consider its effect on very small children. Children with hearing loss often have a difficult time in school, and because noise-induced hearing loss is gradual and cumulative, it can take a long time for parents and teachers to know what is wrong.

It is recognized that noises up to 85 decibels are safe for continuous listening for up to eight hours. For every 3 decibel increase, however, the safe listening time is cut in half. For example, at 88 decibels, permissible exposure time is only four hours, at 91 decibels it is 2 hours, and by 103 decibels, the ear is only safe for up to 7.5 minutes of listening.

The problem of noisy toys

Many toys on the market adhere to the new ASTM International standards for toy noise, which require that sound-pressure levels do not exceed 85 decibels at 50 centimeters from the toys' surface, and the manufacturers list this proudly on the toys' packaging. However, this is problematic because, according to Kathy Webb, the executive director of the Sight and Hearing Association, this doesn't reflect reality:

"The problem with this standard is 50 cm is longer than the average arm length of an adult. We test toys based on how a child would play with them, not how an adult would play with them," Webb explained. "If you watch a child playing with a noise-producing toy, you will see them hold it close to their face, next to their ears or within their arms length, which is closer to 10 inches (25 cm)."

The sound is magnified as the distance closes between listener and source of sound. Thus, children are hearing sounds at much higher decibels than the toy manufacturers intended.

Noisy toy list 2013

Here's a chart with data from the Sight and Hearing Association's naughty list for the noisiest and most potentially damaging toys of 2013, arranged in ascending order of loudness:

Toy Manufacturer Intended Age dB from 25 cm dB from 0 cm
Star Wars Darth Maul™ electronic helmet Hasbro 5 years + 73.7 86.4
Soar and Learn Plane™ Disney Planes VTech 3 - 6 years 69.7 87.2
Marvel Iron Man 3 Arc Strike Iron Man™ Hasbro 4 years + 74.9 88
Laugh & Learn Love to Play Puppy™ Fisher-Price/Mattel, Inc. 6 months - 3 years 76.8 88.3
Transformers® Rescue Bots Electronic Bumblebee™ Playskool/Hasbro 3 - 7 years 75.5 89.4
Nickelodeon Dora Rocks: Singing Star™ Microphone Mattel, Inc. 3 years + 78.8 89.5
VTech® Roll & Learn Turtle™ VTech 9 months - 3 years 74.4 90.1
Ready for School Elmo - 123 Sesame Street Steps to School™  Hasbro 2 years + 79.7 91.2
Care Bears Wiggle Hugs Wonderheart™ Bear Hasbro 3 years + 81.8 91.9
Despicable Me 2 Fart Blaster Thinkaway Toys 4 years + 77.5 93.2
Disney Baby Einstein/Discovery Drums™ The Baby Einstein Company, LLC 3 months + 74.6 95.2
Shake 'n Go! ® El Chupacabra - Fisher Price/Disney Planes Mattel, Inc. 3 - 7 years 84.5 100.4
Chat & Count Smartphone - Leap Frog® Leapfrog Enterprises, Inc. 18 months + 78.9 100.7
Road Rockin' Ricky™ - Road Rippers Toy State Industrial, Ltd. 3 years + 83.8 101.2
Talkin' Check-up Set, Doc McStuffins Disney, Jr. Just Playing 3 years + 76.5 102.8
B. Meowsic Piano Maison Joseph Battat, Ltd. 2 - 6 years 87.9 106.8
Twister Dance Rave Hasbro 8 years + 83.5 107.9
Disney Baby Einstein/Take Along Tunes The Baby Einstein Company, LLC 3 months + 88.1 114.8

 

As you can see, many of the toys above seem like they are at safe decibels when held 25 centimeters away from the ear, though two still exceed 85 decibels. However, when held right up to the ear, the toys were at dangerous levels. In fact, when held next to the ear, four of the toys were the approximate noise level of a hand or pneumatic drill (100 dB), two were at the same levels of a gas lawn mower or snowblower (106 dB) and one was louder than a chainsaw (110 dB) and nearly as loud as a jet plane taking off (120 dB)! In fact, the loudest toy when held up to the ear - the Disney Baby Einsten/Take Along Tunes toy - can only be listened to safely for up to 15 minutes.

Signs of noise-induced hearing loss in children

If a child has noise-induced hearing loss, he or she might:

  • Misunderstand what is said.
  • Have trouble in school when no problems were present in the past.
  • Ask for repetition frequently.
  • Pay close attention to other children to understand what they are saying or doing.
  • Feel completely fatigued by the day's end due to the extra effort it takes to hear.
  • Withdraw from situations where hearing is paramount.
  • Have difficulty hearing certain sounds like fricatives, which are consonants starting with f, v, th or others.
  • Appear to be not paying attention during tasks at home or in the classroom that rely on listening.

Prevent noise-induced hearing loss in children

When shopping for toys for a child, here are some tips to protect your child and others from noise-induced hearing loss:

  • Listen to the toy before you buy it. Hold it close to your ear. If it seems too loud to you, then it is.
  • Purchase toys that have volume controls and explain to your child the importance of not playing with the controls.
  • Report a loud toy to the Consumer Product Safety Commission or the Sight and Hearing Association.
  • If your child already has a toy that you have determined is too loud, you don't necessarily have to throw it out. First try putting packing or masking tape over the speaker to reduce the volume.

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