The unintended consequences of CDC’s guidelines for preventing hearing impairment

by John Drinkwater, Founding Member, The Quiet Coalition

If you follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations to protect your hearing then be prepared for isolation and depression. The CDC’s February 2017 issue of Vital Signs states that continued exposure to unsafe sound levels can cause stress, anxiety, depression, isolation, and other health issues. So in order to protect your hearing, the CDC recommends everyone:

  1. Avoid noisy places.
  2. Use earplugs, earmuffs and noise canceling devices when in noisy places.

Amplified sound levels at restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters, health clubs, nightclubs, and other public places often are unsafe.

Following recommendation No. 1: You don’t go.

Following recommendation No. 2: Your ears can’t function properly.

Imagine if the “solution” to second hand smoke at a restaurant was to wear a protective mask over your nose and mouth. How could you possibly communicate and enjoy your meal? Hearing “protection” simulates the effects of hearing loss and inhibits your ability to communicate and enjoy the event. It also trains your ears to get used to the effects of hearing loss and may inhibit recognizing gradual hearing impairment.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a part of the CDC charged with conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related injury and illness, is highly critical of earplugs and earmuffs and recommends they should only be used when engineering controls are not feasible to reduce noise levels. According to NIOSH, the noise reduction rating system (NRR) used for earmuffs and earplugs greatly overstates “protection” and therefore is not NIOSH approved. Workers often do not use hearing protectors properly, and they interfere with communication. If earplugs are removed for a short period in order to communicate, there can be immediate and irreparable injury. Even double protection (earplugs and earmuffs) is inadequate when exposure exceeds 105 dB.

Manufacturers mislead the public with overstated marketing claims. A Dow Industrial company markets their “Professional Earmuff” as “Our Highest-NRR Rated Earmuff (30 Decibels), Patented Twin Cup Design.” The really small print in the inside of the box states the Company:

[M]akes no warranty as to the suitability of NRR as a measure of actual protection from any noise level since such protection depends on the sound level (loudness), how long you listen to the loud sound, and how well you fit the earplugs (sic) in your ears…The NRR is based on the attenuation of continuous noise and may not be an accurate indicator of the protection attainable against impulsive noise such as gunfire…[Company] recommends reducing the NRR by 50% for estimating the average amount of noise reduction provided.

Furthermore, no type of hearing protection or noise canceling device protects against low frequency sounds, which travel through your body causing stress and may damage unborn children. Accordingly, NIOSH’s primary recommendation of the most effective way to prevent noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is to “remove hazardous noise from the workplace or remove the worker from hazardous noise.”

If you follow the primary CDC and NIOSH guideline, avoiding noisy places, it results in the same isolation, depression, and other issues associated with hearing impairment. The only healthy solution is requiring safe amplified sound levels so no hearing protection is necessary–it doesn’t cost anything to Turn Up the Quiet.™ There are many architecturally safe and pleasing ways to reduce sound levels in public places: breaking up an open floor plan, using materials that absorb or diffuse sound on wall and ceiling surfaces, installing carpeting, curtains, and tapestries, and using attractive acoustic panels, to name a few. It is also good for business.

After meeting with a local health club, they agreed to institute a new “quiet” class with no amplified music on a trial basis. Management was surprised to hear positive comments from members who had simply stopped coming to classes due to the unsafe volumes. They learned that some members with hearing aids took them out, put in earplugs, and still found the classes unbearable. In a few months they added two more quiet classes.

It’s OK to ask the grocery store, the clothing store, and other retailers to turn off the amplified music while you are shopping. Many will happily accommodate you, and it encourages others to do the same. Some businesses are establishing regular “quiet” hours of operation and finding more satisfied, and even new, customers who spend more time at the establishment.

In addition, “silent discos” are gaining popularity, where instead of amplifying music through speakers it is “silently” delivered via Wi-Fi to smartphones for patrons to listen without disturbing others. The local mayor wants to try it as part of the Summer Concerts in the Park series. It will allow those who may not want amplification to enjoy the Park, and won’t interfere with nearby businesses or residents. The same technology can be applied to other music events such as outdoor exercise, and speech events, such as public ceremonies, political speakers, and other large public gatherings.

These and other creative ways to avoid unsafe levels will allow all of us to fully participate and enjoy public gatherings without the risk of injury.

John Drinkwater is a composer, musician, and attorney with a background that includes science and architecture studies. He is the founder of secondhandsound.org, and he also owns the trademark Turn Up the Quiet™ All Rights Reserved.

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

Text Copyright 2017 John Drinkwater
Photo Copyright 2014 secondhandsound.org
All rights reserved

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *