Hearing protection

Going to the Superbowl?

Don’t forget your ear plugs! Why?  Because stadium noise is deafening and, unbelievably, encouraged.  The Kansas City Chiefs, for example, actively encourages stadium noise at Arrowhead Stadium, which the franchise boasts is the “loudest in the league.”  In 2013, a “record-setting attempt was planned by Chiefs fans but had support of the organization, which paid $7,500 to fly an adjudicator from Guinness to Kansas City to document the effort.”  They “won” with a record-breaking 137.5 decibels.  And then they did it again in 2014, this time reaching a punishing 142.2 decibels.  On purpose.  Because a lot was at stake: Kansas City Chiefs had to best the Seahawks’ loudest stadium record.  Yes, team fans compete for the glory of having the world’s loudest stadium.

While the various franchises brag about whose fans are the loudest, at least some people recognize that being the ‘world’s loudest stadium’ is a bad idea.  NBC News, reporting on the record attempt, reached out to experts to address the obvious–for some–concern about the effects of extreme noise on hearing:

What [the record-breaking attempt] is most certainly doing is damaging the hearing of every person in attendance. People don’t recognize how much damage they can do to their hearing, says Alison Grimes, an assistant clinical professor of head/neck surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of audiology at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

“People will say, ‘Oh, it was just for 10 minutes,’” Grimes says. “And what I tell my patients is that noise is cumulative over the lifetime. Each time you use a chain saw or ride a motorcycle or go to a stadium to make the sound meter reach the top, it accumulates.”

While the NBC News piece sensibly suggested that fans attending the game purchase over-the-counter ear plugs, it’s likely that most of the fans who were present for this misguided attempt at glory were not protected.  Does that matter?  Will there be long-term consequences for this lapse in judgment?  Sadly, yes.  As Dr. Grimes noted:

“If you’re literally talking about 130 decibels – nobody should ever be exposed to that,” Grimes said. “There isn’t a safe amount of time for 130 decibels. It’s physically painful as well as acoustically damaging.”

Remember, “hair cells in your ear don’t grow back. There is no Rogaine for your inner ear,” warns Grimes. “While hearing aids work really well, there is no substitute for natural hearing.”

Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, believes that the Kansas City organizers missed a golden opportunity to obtain recognition of another world record.  Noting that the record 142.2 dB roar exceeded the Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s (OSHA) maximum Permissible Noise Exposure of 140 dB, he suggested that the organizers should have submitted the event for a second world record: the most people whose hearing was permanently damaged at one time (about 80,000 in attendance).*

So skip the stadium and watch the Super Bowl at home.  Your ears will thank you for it.

*Dr. Fink adds that while there is no law protecting the public from the dangers of loud noise, workers have legal protection provided by OSHA.  On the day of the world record event, stadium employees and players and staff of two NFL teams were exposed to noise exceeding the maximum allowable workplace noise exposure level.  Dr. Fink filed a complaint with OSHA but was informed that the statutory limit for reporting a workplace safety violation had passed.

How a professional cellist learned to live with a career-ending ear injury:

The Atlantic has posted a fascinating aritcle by Janet Horvath, the former principal cello for the Minneapolis Orchestra who suffered an acoustic-shock injury to her left ear during a concert that led to a severe case of hyperacusis.  In “A musician afraid of sound,” Horvath writes that the placement of a speaker two feet from her ear left her unable to tolerate noise, including music.  The article allows those unfamiliar with hyperacusis to understand the devastation it can cause, particularly when the injury happens to someone for whom music was both a career and passion.  Fortunately, after being fitted “with modified hearing aids that…lower[ed] the volume of sound without altering its clarity,” followed by months of desensitization therapy, Horvath was to pick up her cello two years after her injury and play, but in the end she accepts that she would never be an orchestral musician again.

It’s gratifying to see a piece about hyperacusis in a mainstream publication, particularly since so few people are aware that it exists.  One hopes that pieces like this one, coupled with recent newpaper articles addressing restaurant noise, help to raise awareness about the noise pollution’s impact on health.

Thanks to Bryan Pollard for the link.  Bryan is the founder and president of Hyperacusis Research Limited, a non-profit charity dedicated to funding research on what causes hyperacusis with the the goal of developing effective treatments.

Turn It Down: How to protect yourself against noise pollution

In “Turn It Down,” Dangerstoppers (Beverly Hills Television) highlights the dangers of noise exposure and its adverse effect on hearing.  The video is very good at informing viewers about dangerous levels of sound and provides tips on how one can limit his or her exposure to noise pollution.  Included in this important piece is Dr. Daniel Fink’s segment on ear plug options for hearing protection.

Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the video link.  Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.

The costs of hearing loss:

The New York TIme’s Jane Brody writes about the high cost of hearing loss in Hearing Loss Costs Far More Than Ability to Hear.

Brody’s post focuses on a psychologist, Mark Hammel, who addressed his hearing loss by (finally) getting hearing aids.  Dr. Hammel provides insights into how hearing loss inflicts real and profound costs on sufferers, many of whom become socially isolated as a result of their condition.  But the post highlights the other costs as well, noting that “30 to 48 million Americans have hearing loss that significantly diminishes the quality of their lives — academically, professionally and medically as well as socially.”  Brody adds that hearing loss can affect physical health (e.g., increased risk of dementia, stress, fatigue), as well as create safety and financial risks.  And those around the hearing impaired suffer as well, as “[m]any who are hard of hearing don’t realize how distressing it is to family members, who typically report feeling frustrated, annoyed and sad as a consequence of communication difficulties and misunderstandings.”

Loud noise causes hearing loss, a preventable medical problem that will continue until and unless people understand the consequences of ignoring it.  The first step to implementing protections against excessive noise is getting poeple to recognize the real and significant costs to the sufferer, his or her family and friends, and society as a whole.  Kudos to Brody for her thoughtful post.

Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the link.  Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.

10/07/2015 Update: Brody follows through with a companion piece that discusses the literal cost of hearing loss in The Hurdles to Getting Hearing Aids.  Among other things, Brody notes that while a failure to recognize hearing loss is one reason why people do not get hearing aids when needed, “the more important reason people fail to get hearing aids when they are needed is the cost, which is rarely covered by insurance and not at all by Medicare, unless the device is for a child.”  Given that the cost for one hearing aid (and most people need two) range from about $1,200 to $2,800,  it’s clear that the high cost of hearing aids keeps them out of the hands of the people who made need them the most.

What if we could control what we hear?

Nuheara, a tech startup, has developed “innovative augmented ‘Hearables’ (ear buds) that allow people to control their hearing experience with the help of a smartphone app.

Sounds like disruptive technology, no?  But Nuheara is not alone.  Doppler Labs had a very sucessful Kickstart campaign last month featuring their app controlled earbuds, raising 253% of their goal.

The interest in this technology shows that many people would like to control what they can (and cannot) hear.  Good.  But it’s unclear whether Nuheara’s Hearables or  Doppler Labs’ Here Active Listening System will limit the sound output delivered directly into users’ ears.  I routinely see people on the subway wearing earbuds where the residual sound leaking from their earbuds is so loud that I can hear what they are listening to.  If I can hear it, they must be destroying their hearing.  Not today, of course, but years from now when it will be too late to stop the damage.  The delayed damage, coupled with the knowledge that the EPA determined over 40 years ago that a 24-hour exposure level of 70 decibels as the level of environmental noise which will prevent any measurable hearing loss over a lifetime,  makes government’s and industry’s failure to limit decibel levels on headphones and earbuds insidious.

I look forward to the reviews of Hearables and Here Active LIstening System.  Having a relatively mild case of hyperacusis, a common trigger of discomfort for me is the competing layers of noise in restaurants.  If the earbuds work as advertised and actively suppress background noise, I may be able to enjoy the conversation at my table without the discomfort caused by the cacophony around me.  That would be nirvana.

Ultimately, I hope that the release of this technology helps to fuel a discussion about noise pollution, in general, as well as the effect of headphones and earbuds on ear health.