What is a reasonable decibel range for a public space?

I’ve been doing a little internet research to see if there is a consensus as to what is considered a reasonable decibel range for normal conversation (i.e., no straining to be heard) and, more importantly, what decibel ranges put the listener at risk for injury.  The Mayo Clinic says that normal conversation reads at 60 decibels.  Webmd and The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASLHA) agree.   But I’m finding that 60 decibels simply does not happen in a public space, restaurant, or store, certainly not in New York City.  I know that New York City (or, at least, Manhattan) is busier and louder than most American cities and towns, but even in quieter places there is going to be a base level hum.  In Manhattan that hum is the sound of lots of feet pounding the pavement, sirens (far away and nearby), beeping horns and other street noise, bursts of laughter, etc.  Fortunately it appears that there is little or no risk of hearing injury if the decibel is reading does not pass 80.  The Mayo Clinic starts the risk range at 80 decibels (“Heavy city traffic, power lawn mower”), while Webmd states that decibel readings above 85 are harmful.  The AHSLA doesn’t identify the exact decibel range where injury can occur, but notes that noise levels are dangerous if:

  • You must raise your voice to be heard.
  • You can’t hear someone 3 feet away from you.
  • Speech around you sounds muffled or dull after you leave the noisy area.
  • You have pain or ringing in your ears (this is called “tinnitus”) after exposure to noise.

I’ve recently downloaded Faber Acoustical’s SoundMeter for my iPad mini and began checking the decibel reading of a variety of spaces to see if I could determine what decibel range is comfortable for me and what decibel reading signals the point where I begin to feel uneasy or irritable.  Long and short, anything up to 75 decibels is usually tolerable, but once 75 decibels is breached things change.  And if the noise level crosses 80 decibels, I reach for my musician’s ear plugs (they reduce sound by 25 decibels) or go from annoyed to very irritable quickly.  Very occasionally pain may follow.  Of course, the quality of the sound also plays a role, as I find that higher pitched, trebly sounds causes me to feel uneasy at lower decibel levels.  The reason for my inquiry will be clearer in the next post where I describe the guide that I am creating which aims to identify those comfortable, ear-friendly spaces that exist throughout the city.

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