How loud is too loud?
If you’re lucky, you’ve had the privilege of watching your parents or grandparents live to a ripe, old age. You may have noticed wistfully as their ability to hear or see has diminished, believing it’s part and parcel of the aging process.
But what if hearing loss is more a function of our increasingly noisy environment than a result of old age? What if, instead of focusing our attention and resources on restoring lost hearing with technology, we could prevent some hearing loss from occurring in the first place?
Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise pollution advocate in the Los Angeles area and blogs about safe hearing levels at Silencity -- The Truth About Noise. He is the founding chairman of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity and quality of life in America. He is the interim chair of Quiet Communities, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting our health, environment and quality of life from from the excessive use of industrial outdoor maintenance equipment and also serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.
Dr. Fink doesn’t believe hearing loss is a function of normal physiological aging, citing quieter, primitive societies where hearing acuity is preserved in older adults. He likens attitudes about hearing loss to those about tooth loss in previous generations. Just as natural teeth work better than dentures he says, natural hearing works better than hearing aids.
His mission, together with other hearing healthcare professionals across the world, is to educate the public about safe noise levels in their environment so they can affect positive change in their communities.
How loud is too loud?
When our hearing is subjected to noisy environments, whether it occurs as a one-time loud explosion or over a longer period of time, it damages the delicate structures of our inner ear and causes permanent hearing loss. This is known as noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) and while it’s not reversible, it is preventable.
In order to protect your own hearing as well as advocate for others, you must first understand when noise is loud enough to harm your hearing.
What the experts say
Sound is measured in decibels (dB), and medical professionals have set safe levels for both daily life and work environments. A 1974 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report identified exposure levels of 70 dB over a 24-hour period as the average, while the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires workers not be exposed to noise levels louder than 90 dB for an eight-hour work day. The World Health Organization (WHO) is more conservative, recommending noise levels in the workplace not exceed 85 dB in an eight-hour work day.
What does that mean? For reference, normal breathing registers 10 dB, a whisper or rustling leaves registers 20 dB, and quiet conversation at home registers 50 dB. Permanent hearing loss can occur from exposure to loud noise over a long period of time or a one-time exposure to an excessively loud sound close to the ear, such as a firecracker (150 dB), popping balloon (157 dB) or shotgun (170 dB).
Trust your gut
In a Silencity.com post about stadium noise at NFL football games, Dr. Fink said “If it sounds too loud, it IS too loud. Fans should bring their own earplugs or earmuffs hearing protection to both professional and college football games.” Likewise, if you meet friends for a drink after work and can’t hear what the person next to you is saying in normal conversation, there’s a good chance your ears will be ringing after you leave -- a sure sign the meeting place was too loud.
How to protect your hearing
So what can you do?
Evaluate your environment
Now that you’re aware what safe noise levels are for your hearing, take stock of your surroundings. Are noise levels at the office comfortable? If not, talk to your supervisor or company personnel director. Consider downloading a sound measurement app to help you approximate the noise in your environment, learn more about advocacy organizations like those mentioned in this article and advocate for change.
Foam ear plugs are inexpensive and easy to carry in your purse, pocket, car console or carry-on luggage. Set a good example for your family and friends by using them whenever you know you’ll be exposed to high noise levels, such as when you’re attending a music concert or enjoying a leisure activity such as hunting or snowmobiling.
To be proactive about your hearing, get a baseline hearing test and have it evaluated annually to monitor for any changes. If you already have hearing loss, it is possible in many cases to slow down its progression. Make the call to a hearing healthcare professional today to discuss your concerns.