What is a normal noise level for humans?

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

What is normal noise for humans? That probably depends on whether you are asking about modern life or about our pastoral past life. In the 1960s, researchers measured excellent hearing and very low ambient noise levels in the nomadic Mabaan population in the southern Sudan and the Kalahari Bushmen in South Africa. But modern life is much noisier.

On an alpine hike in the Austrian Tirol in September, I strolled through the meadow behind me in the photo. I pulled out my iPhone 6 and measured the sound with the Faber Sound Meter 4 app, which has been shown to be almost as accurate as a certified sound meter. The reading was in the low 40-decibel range. That noise came from the wind, distant road traffic noise, and an occasional distant airplane.

This is what humans, including those living in agrarian regions until agriculture was mechanized in the twentieth century, experienced. No motorcycle exhausts, no diesel engines, no helicopters. And restaurants didn’t have amplified music, either.

Humans didn’t evolve in noise. We evolved in quiet. We don’t have protective mechanisms against chronic loud noise exposure. And in an answer to the question at the top of this piece, the normal noise level for humans is quiet.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair 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.

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