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How to protect your hearing this Fourth of July

Contributed by | Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

*Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2015. Due to its timeliness and popularity, we've updated it and are publishing it again just in time for this year's Independence Day celebrations.  

When you think of Independence Day, the first thing that comes to mind is probably fireworks. After spending the day swimming, playing and barbecuing, many of those in the United States will soon be heading out to ooh and aah over a display of colorful and exciting pyrotechnics. But whether you are watching a professional fireworks show or have purchased your own fireworks, hearing loss is a real risk. 

Be safe when it comes to fireworks

Why are the fireworks so loud in the first place? It all comes down to the chemical reaction that happens after the fuse is lit. The burning gunpowder releases hot gas that expands rapidly; when the gas expands to the point that it runs out of room within the firework, the resulting explosion causes a blast wave. The vibrations from that blast wave have the potential to cause permanent damage to the delicate hair cells of the inner ear.

Yes, fireworks are exciting, but the problem is the excitement is often measured by the “loudness factor." For some people, the louder the better. And those loud explosions have the potential to reach levels between 150 and 175 decibels. When it comes to fireworks, the World Health Organization recommends the maximum safe decibel level for adults is 140 decibels, and for children only 120 decibels. Infants should not be exposed to fireworks at all; an infant’s ear canal is much smaller than an older child's or an adult's, so the sound pressure entering the ear is greater. What might not sound that loud to an adult actually sounds up to 20 decibels louder to an infant.

The bottom line is that that hearing loss can occur from exposure to any sound over 85 decibels, so it makes sense to take steps to protect your hearing this Fourth of July.

One way is to maintain a safe distance from the fireworks display. The farther you are from the sound, the less harmful the sound is to your ears, so your distance from the sound of the fireworks can make all of the difference in terms of decibel level and hearing safety. A distance of around 500 feet will still give you a great view of the fireworks, but without the sound pressure that can damage the tiny hair cells in the inner ear.

Where you view your fireworks can also affect your hearing. Experts recommend attending a community fireworks display rather than setting off your own fireworks at home. Not only are fireworks dangerous and best left to trained professionals, but there is usually a roped off area located a safe viewing (and listening) distance away from the fireworks show.

If you intend to sit as close to the action as possible, or if you are determined to create your own fireworks display, protect your hearing and that of your children. Inexpensive foam earplugs can be found in drugstores and pharmacies, and work well for adults; earmuffs (basically foam-filled cups that cover the ears) are better for small children because earplugs sometimes don’t fit and can be a choking hazard.

According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, more than 200 million pounds of fireworks were purchased for personal use in 2014; double the amount in 2000. If you are planning your own fireworks display, the good news is you can customize your selection for reduced noise. All fireworks come with a noise rating, so selecting quieter fireworks will not only preserve a good relationship with your neighbors, it will protect your hearing as well. Quieter fireworks include fountains, wheels, falling leaves and comets. While not completely silent, they crackle and whistle instead of creating a loud, explosive boom. All are created for spectacular visual display but less noise. If you buy fireworks, your fireworks provider should be able to direct you to those that are lower on the noise rating scale.

What to avoid? Rockets, mines and any fireworks that have many blasts strung together tightly. These fireworks are created to make as much noise as possible.

According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 30 million people in the U.S. are at risk of noise-induced hearing loss.  Exposure to noises such as loud fireworks can result in:

  • Tinnitus
  • Slight temporary hearing loss (less than 24 hours)
  • Permanent hearing loss
  • Eardrum perforation (rare)

If you think you have noise-induced hearing loss after attending a fireworks display, be sure to see a hearing care professional. And don’t worry; you can still be patriotic this Fourth of July while protecting your hearing from the eardrum-shattering booms. Protecting your hearing now will enable you to enjoy the sounds of the fireworks for years to come.

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