Hearing protection

A revised definition of noise for National Protect Your Hearing Month

Photo credit: Chris Fithall licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

October is National Protect Your Hearing Month, and I am using the occasion to propose a revised definition of noise: noise is unwanted and/or harmful sound.

For many decades, noise has been defined as “unwanted sound,” a phrase usually attributed to the late acoustics pioneer Leo Beranek. The problem with this definition is that it implies that the perception of noise is subjective. This means that those complaining about noise have no real basis for their complaints, other than a personal reaction to noise.

The new definition acknowledges that noise can be harmful to human health and can interfere with human activity. Even if a noise is merely unpleasant, that experience is stressful.  Recent research shows that stress causes vascular inflammation and cardiovascular disease.

The revised definition is supported by my article in the Fall 2019 issue of Acoustics Today, summarizing the evidence-based noise levels affecting human health and function. My article makes it clear that there can be no rational doubt that noise is harmful, and unwanted noise especially so. Sounds as quiet as 30-35 A-weighted decibels (dBA) can disrupt sleep. A good night’s sleep is important for health and function. Forty-five decibel (dB) sound can disrupt concentration and interfere with learning. At 55 dB, non-auditory health impacts of noise begin, including hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and increased mortality. These effects are best studied for transportation noise, but are seen with occupational noise exposure. At 60 dBA ambient noise, people with hearing loss have difficulty understanding speech. At 70 dBA, those with normal hearing also have difficulty understanding speech.

Seventy dB time-weighted average for 24 hours is the only evidence-based noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss, but the actual safe noise level is probably lower than that. And 85 dBA is the occupational recommended noise exposure level, not a safe noise level for the public. And as I notedin my article, the World Health Organization recommends only one hour exposure at 85 dBA daily to prevent hearing loss. Because the decibel scale is logarithmic, this is mathematically the same as 70 dB time-weighted average for a day.

Hearing loss is very common in older people, but I’ve learned that this isn’t part of normal physiological aging. Rather, presbycusis or age-related hearing loss is largely noise-induced hearing loss.

So what can you do to protect your hearing? There are two ways to protect hearing: avoid loud noise, and if you can’t, use hearing protection devices.

We only have two ears, and unlike knees they can’t be replaced. So if a noise sounds too loud, it IS too loud. And if a noise is so loud that one can’t converse without straining to speak or to be heard, the ambient noise is above 75 dBA and your hearing is at risk.

And always remember that noise is unwanted and/or harmful sound

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

A pioneer in protecting musicians and fans from hearing loss

Photo credit: Wendy Wei from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article in the San Francisco Examiner profiles Kathy Peck, who started advocating for hearing protection at rock concerts before anyone realized that rock concerts were loud enough to cause hearing loss. Peck’s efforts led to her starting the nonprofit Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers, or H.E.A.R., and eventually to the adoption of laws in San Francisco requiring concert venues with a dance floor and capacity for 500 or more to provide earplugs for patrons.

Kudos to Ms. Peck for protecting the hearing of musicians and San Franciscans. Similar laws protecting the public’s hearing should be passed in other cities, too.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

What is a safe noise exposure level for the public?

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

What is a safe noise exposure level for the public?

That seems like an easy question, but the answer wasn’t obvious in 2014 when I became a noise activist, trying to make the world a quieter place. My interest was in preventing auditory disorders. (I’ve since learned that noise has non-auditory health effects, too, at lower noise levels, but my focus always is on auditory health.)

The internet didn’t help much. Most links found used the 85 decibel (dB) standard, because the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders stated, and still states, that “[l]ong or repeated exposure to sound at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss.” This didn’t seem right to me, because I have hyperacusis and sound levels much over 75 dB hurt my ears.

It took me a year to learn that the 85 dB standard comes from the NIOSH noise criteria (pdf) and isn’t a safe noise level for the public, and not for workers, either.

Now, when one searches for “safe noise level” or “safe noise level for the public,” the overwhelming majority of links cite my several publications on this topic. As I have written, the only evidence-based safe noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss is a time-weighted average of 70 dB for 24 hours, but for a variety of reasons the real safe exposure level has to be lower.

The 85 dB standard lives on, zombie-like, refusing to die, but at least accurate information about the safe noise level to prevent hearing loss is now widely accessible.

I hope accurate information about safe noise levels will empower the public to demand quiet, before we all lose our hearing.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Another app to help people with hearing loss

Photo credit: Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Gadgets360 writes about Google’s Sound Amplifier app, which enhances the volume and clarity of sound for people with partial hearing impairment. The app was formerly available only for the latest smartphones, but now can be used with older devices.

A quick Google search didn’t find any peer-reviewed scientific articles describing how well Sound Amplifier works in real life, but there were multiple links describing Google’s new commitment to help those with auditory disabilities.

Of course, preventing a disability is much better than treating a disability. Preserved normal hearing is better than any hearing aid or smartphone app, and noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable.

So avoid loud noises and use hearing protection if you can’t. Because if something sounds too loud, it IS too loud!

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Study urges efforts to prevent noise-induced hearing loss

This image is in the public domain

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report from Purdue University highlights research done there with the University of Rochester that shows noise-induced hearing loss has worse effects on hearing than hearing loss caused by age-related metabolic loss. Specifically, the researchers found that “noise trauma causes substantially greater changes in neural processing of complex sounds compared with age-related metabolic loss,” which the researchers think may explain why there are “large differences in speech perception commonly seen between people with the same clinically defined degree of hearing loss based on an audiogram.”

According to the CDC, noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable. In public health, prevention of disease is almost always better and cheaper than treatment of a disease or condition.  For hearing, natural hearing preserved into old age is much better and much cheaper than costly hearing aids.

So remember: if it sounds too loud, it IS too loud.  Avoid excessive noise exposure and use hearing protection now, or need hearing aids later.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Can Acoustic metamaterials rescue your hearing?

Photo credit: Office of Naval Research licensed under CC BY 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Boston University’s work on acoustic metamaterials is quite interesting, but it’s a long way from being available in stores if you’re concerned about hearing loss, as you should be.

Acoustic metamaterials are an exciting if little-known area of research and development that hold promise for much better, i.e., lighter, less bulky, ways to stop noise from destroying your hearing or disrupting your sleep or concentration.

The article caught my attention because I used to teach at BU, though I don’t know this research team. And I’ve also done some grant-funded work on other acoustic metamaterials in the research lab I co-founded at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. So I am very interested in this subject.

But I mainly want to say this: The most important work on noise control right now is going on at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where leadership recognized two years ago that noise is, indeed, a serious public health hazard. That’s huge—because it brings noise out of the dark shadow it’s been hidden under at Environmental Protection Agency since 1981. The CDC’s recognition is what has triggered interest in research on a variety of solutions., and its interest should trigger funding for:

  1. Widespread work on reducing noise at the source (such as noise from airports, highways, railways, construction and \ maintenance equipment, household appliances, headphones, etc.), and
  2. Reducing noise at the receiver (such as noise-cancellation headphones or more effective, lighter, or less bulky ways to block sound from destroying your hearing).

We’ve already seen two pieces of national bi-partisan legislation pass without a fight: the 2017 bi-partisan Warren-Grassley OTC Hearing Aid Act, and the 2018 FAA Re-Authorization Act. And at the local level, a number of cities and towns have taken up the battle: Washington DC, New York City, Southampton, New York, S. Pasadena, and others.

In fact, it feels like the tide has turned on this issue after a 38-year hiatus and hearing loss is now beginning to be recognized as a serious public health hazard. But don’t wait for this BU group to commercialize their work on acoustic metamaterials because that could be decades away. Go and buy a good pair of ear plugs or a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones AND a good pair of over-the-ear “ear muffs” (they can be found at hunting or hardware stores). Then train your family members, even the youngest children, that hearing is precious and must be protected.

Sound is like the air you breathe: omnipresent, invisible, necessary, but also potentially hazardous. Nobody will protect you if you don’t protect yourself.

In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, American National Standards Institute Committee S12, Workgroup 44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group—a partner of the American Hospital Association. He is the lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), a contributor to the National Academy of Engineering report “Technology for a Quieter America,” and to the US-GSA guidance “Sound Matters”, and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He recently retired from the board of directors of the American Tinnitus Association. A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Apple watch to add noise monitoring

Photo credit: Forth With Life licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Dr. Daniel Fink, Chair, The Quiet Coaltion

Apple has announced that it is adding a noise monitoring feature to the Apple watch. The new feature should be available in late 2019. Users will be able to set their own sound warning level (according to this French-language link), but the example used in the linked Mic article cites 90 decibels (dB) as the warning level.

That’s too loud.

The World Health Organization recommends a daily average noise exposure of only 70 decibels to prevent hearing loss. After only 30 minutes at 90 dB, one has reached that daily noise dose even if the other 23 1/2 hours have zero noise, which is impossible.

Most people don’t know that the auditory injury threshold, the threshold at which auditory damage begins, is only 75-78 A-weighted decibels* (dBA) for 8 hours, which mathematically is the same as 70 dB time-weighted average for 24 hours, or 85 dBA for only 1 hour. There is some evidence that auditory damage may begin at sounds as low as 55 dBA for 8 hours. The only evidence-based noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss is a time-weighted average of 70 decibels for 24 hours.

If you have an Apple watch and want to use the noise monitoring feature, we suggest setting the alarm level at 80 or at most 85 decibels.

But you don’t need an Apple watch or a sound level meter app on your smart phone to know if you’re being exposed to too much noise. If you have to strain to speak or be heard in a normal conversation at the usual 3-4 foot social distance, the ambient noise is above 75 dBA and your hearing is at risk.

Protect your ears now, or need hearing aids later.

*A-weighting adjusts sound measurements for the frequencies heard in human speech.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Want a quieter town? Urge local government to “Buy Quiet”

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet coalition

These two 5-minute videos from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spell out how business owners can reduce noise-induced hearing loss by creating “Buy Quiet” programs as a first step when purchasing or renting machinery or tools.  The Buy Quiet program “encourages companies to purchase or rent quieter machinery and tools to reduce worker noise exposure” when they first start up or when older machinery and tools are replaced. You can make your town or neighborhood quieter by getting your local government to encourage it’s own departments–as well as area businesses–to Buy Quiet.

Buy Quiet programs originated at NASA, where they were concerned about astronauts who, it turns out, were exposed to excessive and dangerous noise level when they were floating around in space.

But Buy Quiet gradually expanded to other federal agencies, for instance the National Park Service, eventually reaching the CDC, which realized that exposing the public to excessive noise levels from construction, traffic, airports, etc. was actually a dangerous public health problem. At that point, the CDC and other federal agencies began publishing the kind of public education materials linked above and much more.

It’s time for all of us to take the noise problem seriously. Remember, as our chairman Dr. Fink says, “if it sounds too loud, it IS too loud!”

In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, American National Standards Institute Committee S12, Workgroup 44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group—a partner of the American Hospital Association. He is the lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), a contributor to the National Academy of Engineering report “Technology for a Quieter America,” and to the US-GSA guidance “Sound Matters”, and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He recently retired from the board of directors of the American Tinnitus Association. A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

London subway noise is excessive

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article in the London Post reports that loud noise on 37 London Underground routes exceeds 85 dB. The World Health Organization recommends only one hour of 85 A-weighted decibel noise exposure to prevent hearing loss. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive recommends posting of warning signs if the noise exceeds 85 decibels. Despite this, Transport for London, the agency that operates London’s subway lines, states that it believes “Health and Safety Executive guidance suggests Tube noise is highly unlikely to cause long-term hearing damage.”

They’re wrong. If one’s commute is 30 minutes or greater each way, the total daily exposure from subway noise alone exceeds the WHO’s safe noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss. And, of course, the Londoner is undoubtedly exposed to other noise sources, such as loud music in restaurants and shops.

When I visit London, I wear earplugs when taking the Tube. You should, too.

Because if it sounds too loud, it IS too loud!

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.