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Most of us know to avoid extremely loud sounds, as they can easily cause noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). A person who works in a factory, or runs a jackhammer for a living, is probably conscientious about wearing ear protection on the job. Employers who require employees to spend time in dangerously loud environments are also required to run training sessions to alert workers to the necessity of hearing protection, as well as to provide that hearing protection on premises.
We know intuitively that operating heavy machinery requires hearing protection, but what about the many daily encounters we have with loud sounds? Are we aware when we are in environments that can damage our hearing? Do we avoid hearing protection even when it is important to employ it?
Style vs Hearing
There’s a long-held belief by many people that hearing aids make them “old,” while at the same time, in their younger years, they might resist wearing protection in many situations for fear of seeming “uncool.” Hopefully these views are changing, as rising negative health outcomes make it clear just how important it is to protect and maintain our ability to hear.
Determining the Safety of Sound in an Environment
There are three factors to consider when we encounter noisy environments.
- How loud is the sound?
- How close are we to the sound?
- How long will we be exposed to the sound?
Ambient sound (sound in the air) is measured in decibels A-weighted (dBA). We use calibrated devices, “SPL meters,” (sound pressure level meters) to accurately measure the sound reaching the microphone of the device. Here are a few common sounds we encounter and roughly what they would measure in dBA:
Painful steady sounds – cause damage immediately
- 130 dBA – jackhammer
- 120 dBA – jet takeoff, sirens, air drill
Loud sounds – cause damage to unprotected ears
- 112 dBA – loudest setting on many music-listening devices, rock concert, chainsaw
- 106 dBA – gas-powered leaf blower or snow blower
- 100 dBA – tractor, average headphone listening level
- 94 dBA – hair dryer, electric blender or food processor
- 91 dBA – passing motorcycle, gas-powered lawn mower, light rail trains
Moderate sounds – do not cause hearing damage
- 70 dBA – animated conversation, vacuum cleaner, alarm clock
- 60 dBA – normal conversation, dishwasher, laundry dryer
- 50 dBA – steady rainfall
- 40 dBA – quiet room
Are you surprised to see where some of these sounds fall in the hierarchy, or which category they appear in? Many of us might not realize that when we mow the lawn, for example, we are exposing ourselves to damaging amounts of noise.
Any sound at 85 dBA or over can cause hearing loss. It might take 8 hours for sound at 85 dBA to cause hearing loss, but it will eventually. For every 3 dBA increase in SPL, the amount of time before hearing loss occurs is cut in half. Some researchers indicate that sound as low as 70 dBA can, in fact, cause hearing loss over a long enough period.
It’s also important to consider distance from the sound source. Every time we double our distance, the SPL decreases by 6 dBA. This can make a dangerous sound into a safe one just by putting a few feet of air between ourselves and the sound source.
A Genetic Component to NIHL
Researchers are now learning that the amount of hearing loss we suffer from these damaging sound levels is, in part, genetic. Still, that does not mean we are predestined to suffer hearing loss; only that our hearing loss, when exposed to the same damaging sound as someone else, might be more or less severe. At present, there is no way to know whether your hearing loss will be minor or major given the same stressors as another person.
Use an SPL Meter on your Phone
It is now possible to download an app on your cell phone that uses your phone’s microphone to display the dBA of sound in your environment. (Though these apps usually require calibration for use with your specific device.) It would be a great idea to get one of these apps and use it when you are unsure of whether your hearing is at risk in any given environment.
Always Wear Protection
If you read a number above 85 dBA on a meter, or if you’re unsure of how loud an environment is, wear ear protection. Carrying earplugs with you at all times is a great way to be prepared for unexpectedly finding yourself in a loud environment. Make sure, if you can, to wear protection that is appropriate for the SPL in your environment. A shooting range requires greater protection than a small music club, for example. Be safe!