Noise Pollution & Hearing Loss
As the world around us advances, there’s mounting evidence that the environmental noise we are producing along the way could cause lasting damage to our hearing. Rates of hearing loss in young people is on a sharp rise, and population rates of hearing impairment are expected to nearly double in the next 60 years. Noise pollution is being looked at as a driving factor in these trends.
Little acknowledged and hardly regulated, noise pollution exposes people to dangerous noise levels incidentally in ways so culturally accepted you may not even notice when the world around you is too loud. Everyday experiences like construction, transportation, loud music, and lawn work come with a cost to your ears. Even running your washing machine or going to your favorite restaurant could be exposing you to unhealthy noise levels. Understanding how to protect your hearing and advocating for noise regulation could help save your hearing.
How loud is too loud? As a standard, any sustained sound above 85 decibels will harm your hearing. Even 85 dB levels of sound can harm your hearing if maintained for more than 8 hours, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to provide ear protection to anyone working in environments with such exposure. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) guidelines make it impermissible to expose workers to noise over 115 dB for any length of time without ear protection.
Unfortunately, these levels of noise exist outside the workplace with more and more frequency. Almost all forms transportation produce hazardous noise levels, from airplane engines to subway clatter. Similarly, much public entertainment is done at hazardous volume, from movie theaters to NASCAR races.
Sound levels and the damage they do increase exponentially, so while 85dB starts to damage your hearing after 8 hours, 115 dB does permanent hearing damage after just 15 minutes. Unprotected exposure to sounds over 115 dB can have a quick and major impact upon your ears.
Simultaneously, the damage that loud noises are doing to our ears can be hard to register. Our perception of sounds can be deceptive. While 90 dB sounds are ten times as loud as 80 dB, our ears only register 90 dB as twice as loud. Although the effects of noise pollution can register as ringing in the ears or temporary dampened sound, hearing damage doesn’t usually elicit physical pain, which our bodies usually use to alert us that something is wrong.
Rock n’ Roll IS Noise Pollution
Back in 1980 the band AC/DC stormed the airwaves with their anthem “Rock n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”. Unfortunately, loud music of any genre is one of the prime culprits of unhealthy noise levels. Concerts usually blast the audience’s ears with 110-120 dB of music, a level that can be tolerated without hearing damage for 15 minutes, tops. For a listening experience that’s better for your long-term hearing, ear plugs are always recommended and taking periodic breaks from the sound can help stave off lasting damage.
Likewise, earbuds and headphones can pipe noise directly into our ear canal at deceptively dangerous volumes. Studies of young people have found that listening at louder-than-safe sound levels is now the norm. Hearing loss from noise pollution builds up over time as more and more permanent damage is sustained.
Noise and Health
Noise pollution takes a huge toll on our hearing over time, and it also affects our stress level and cardiovascular health. Organizations like Quiet Communities are working to raise public awareness of the effects and hazards of noise pollution. Likening dangerous noise levels to the once unacknowledged risks of secondhand smoke, Quiet Communities is also working to increase noise regulation for health and safety.
Other avenues are being explored on a national level. There is a push to bring funding and function back to the EPA’s Noise Control Act of 1972. The programs built for that Act were defunded during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, though the Noise Control Act was a preliminary national step in controlling noise pollution. Having noise pollution recognized as a health concern by the U.S. Surgeon General is also being pursued as a way to build momentum for policy. In our day-to-day life, there are new tools to monitor noise exposure such as smartphone apps like TooLoud? and deciBel.
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