Noise and children

Another review site tackles “kid-friendly” earbuds and headphones

And TJ Donegan, Reviewed.com, concludes that you should never let your kids use your earbuds. Why? His review finds that headphones and earbuds could be dangerous for your kids’ ears. Donegan starts his article by stating that as a father to a young daughter:

I feel like I need to constantly worry about her safety. Worse, every other day there’s some jerk online telling me to be terrified of something new. Well, today I’m that jerk, but this is important: your headphones may be dangerous.

Donegan notes that most people probably recognize that loud concerts can damage hearing, but adds that “researchers and groups like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control (sic) have established that routine exposure to moderately loud sounds can permanently damage your hearing, with up to 1.1 billion people at risk.” The risk is of particular concern for children, as they “frequently listen to music at max volume.” 

This point was driven home for Donegan who says that “when testing for our roundup of the best headphones for kids…we found that even something as simple as an Apple iPhone 7 Plus and the included earbuds can dramatically exceed the recommended levels at full volume, posing a risk after just a few minutes.”  In the course of testing volume-limiting, “kid safe” headphones, Donegan and his associates found that “many exceeded their own advertised maximum limits” or the safeguards were easy for children to remove. 

Donegan then explores the issue of “how loud is too loud,” stating that “though health experts have been studying this for decades, there isn’t a clear point at which damage is guaranteed to occur.”  He cites the “consensus” standard that holds that “you are at risk of noise-induced hearing loss if you’re exposed to an average volume of 85 decibels for 8 hours in a day,” but adds that “[i]t’s important to note that we’re not entirely sure where the safe zone really ends, and because noise-induced hearing loss is irreversible, caution is definitely the way to go.”  There is more than a hint of skepticism about safe standards in this article, as there should be.  As noted noise activist Dr. Daniel Fink has written in his editorial in the American Journal of Public Health, the 85 dBA standard is “an occupational noise exposure standard [that] is not a safe standard for the public.”

After an exhaustive review of hundreds of headphones, including 20 pairs of volume-limiting headphones, Donegan distills the findings into guidelines he plans on using when his daughter starts using headphones, including using volume-limiting headphones that play at or below recommended sound levels and limiting headphone use to under one hour a day.

To see Donegan’s full list of guidelines and learn more about the methodology used to review volume-limiting headphones, click the link in the first paragraph.

Link via @earables.

One reason we don’t hear about “open schools” anymore:

Photo credit: missbossy

They’re noisy! Steve Drummond, NPR, looks back at education policy in the 1960’s and 1970’s which gave birth to the “Open Education” model (among other things). Under this model there were “[n]o whole-class lessons, no standardized tests, and no detailed curriculum,” and often no walls. Wide open spaces prevailed.

Drummond visited one of the few remaining schools built with the open school concept in mind, Benjamin Orr Elementary School. The goal of the open school was to encourage collaboration (does that sound familiar?), but one glaring problem at open schools like Benjamin Orr is the noise. So the teachers there try to adapt by creating walls within the big open space. That’s not a surprise, because as Drummond tells us:

Historians say that’s pretty much why this open school design died out. Bottom line: Too loud. Too distracting. Teachers hated it.

Benjamin Orr Elementary School is going to be torn down and a new school built next door–a new school that will not be open (and will have better heating and cooling, too). But don’t despair.  Although the open school concept didn’t live up to its promise, one of the teachers Drummond interviews noted that “open education isn’t so much about the floor plan, but the way teachers work together and work with their students.”

 

Sounding off on noise

Jeanine Barone, writing for Principa-Scientific International, interviews Arline Bronzaft, PhD, asking Dr. Bronzaft about her lifetime of fighting noise. Dr. Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist, is a professor emerita of psychology at Lehman College, City University of New York, and an expert witness in court cases and government hearings on the impact of noise on mental and physical well-being.  She also is a founding member of The Quiet Coalition.

Barone wonders whether noise has to be loud to affect people, to which Dr. Bronzaft responds that noise doesn’t necessarily have to be loud to affect someone because “[n]oise is any unwanted, uncontrollable, or unpredictable sound.”  Dr. Bronzaft describes the negative effects of noise on health and quality of life, including its impact on children’s learning.

That noise is understood to be detrimental to children’s learning is due in large part to Dr. Bronzaft’s landmark study of an elementary school adjacent to an elevated train track in New York City. On one side of the building “the classrooms were exposed to passing train noise every 4.5 minutes,” while on the other side of the building “the classrooms were not intruded upon by passing train noise.”  Dr. Bronzaft’s study showed that “[b]y the sixth grade, the children exposed to noise were nearly a year behind in reading.”

But Dr. Bronzaft didn’t conclude her study and move on.  Rather, she brought the data to the transit authority and convinced them to employ noise suppression technology on the nearby tracks.  Some years later she did a follow-up study that found that the noise had decreased and “children on both sides of the school were reading at the same level.”

Click the link to learn more about Dr. Bronzaft’s work

What can you do to protect your children’s hearing?

Doctors say kids are at higher risk for hearing loss. Dr. Rachel Wood, an audiologist with the LSU Health and Sciences Center, studies and treats hearing loss patients, and increasingly she is seeing younger patients. Dr. Wood says that there are a “growing number of factors that cause hearing loss.” One particular concern is that “[c]hildren especially can plug into their phone and crank up the volume, turn up the sound effects on video games, or even watch rock concerts on their computers.”

Dr. Wood finds headphones to be “especially troubling,” stating:

There are tiny sensors in your inner ear that are very sensitive. Loud sounds damage those sensors, and if they’re destroyed, they will never grow back, which leads to hearing loss. The amount of damage is based on the volume of the sound and how close the sound is to your ear. Since headphones put the sound right next to those sensors, it magnifies the damage.

So what can you do to protect your child’s hearing?  Dr. Wood suggests that parents set volume limits on electronic devices such as phones.  She also advises parents to impose time limits for using headphones and have their children take a break every 30 to 60 minutes.  Finally, if your children are going to events with loud noises, such as concerts or fireworks displays, hand them a pair of ear plugs.  Purchased in bulk, ear plugs are a cheap and easy way to protect your children’s hearing.

 

 

 

Are loud concerts bad for Beyoncé’s unborn twins?

Tom Avril, Phillynews.com, writes about the impact of loud music on the unborn. Avril notes that “[r]esearchers cannot perform a controlled laboratory study, because it would be unethical to expose pregnant women to anything that might damage a fetus,” but he adds that there are “a few observational studies of pregnant women who work in noisy environments.”  Sadly, the conclusion of those studies is mixed. Avril cites a 2016 study on prenatal noise exposure in Sweden that revealed that for “women in a workplace with sound levels above 85 decibels, children exposed in utero were slightly more likely to suffer impaired hearing than children born to mothers whose workplaces measured below 75 decibels.”  But other studies, he states, did not find noise to be a problem.

Avril speaks to Lindsay Bondurant, a pediatric audiologist at Salus University in Elkins Park, who offers that while a one time exposure to a concert should be fine, chronic exposure could be a problem. Rock concerts can reach much higher decibel levels than one would typically be exposed to–up to 120 decibels. Catherine Palmer, director of audiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, explains that exposure is different for the fetus than its mother, because “the sound travels through the mother’s abdomen.”  She cautions, however, that “timing of the exposure may matter, as well, depending on the developmental stage of the auditory pathway.”

So, what should one do?  With conflicting and incomplete information, we would err on the side of caution. As Pediatric audiologist Bondurnat opined, exposure to the sound at one concert should be fine. So unless you are Beyonce, keep your exposure to loud sound to one concert during a pregnancy.  And don’t forget to bring ear plugs to the one concert you attend. Developing a practice of using ear protection in loud spaces will come in handy once your child is old enough to attend noisy events with you.  After all, it will be easier to get your child to wear ear plugs if she sees her parents doing it.

Update: Before this post was published, the NY Times reported that Beyonce pulled out of Coachella ‘Following the Advice of Her Doctors’.  Apparently her doctors advised her to keep a less rigorous schedule.  We like to think that they suggested some quiet time too.

 

Hearing Loss Is Growing


From the book The Human Body and Health Revised by Alvin Davison, 1908 / Public Domain

And Experts Say Earphones Are Part Of The Problem.

Mack interviews audiologist Michele Abrams who spoke about limiting exposure to damaging sound:

When we think about decibel levels, when we think of loudness levels, it’s really incremental.  It’s a logarithmic scale. It’s not a linear scale. So we know that 85 db is that critical level. Eighty-five db, eight hours a day, that’s your maximum. If it’s 90 db — five db greater — you have to cut your time in half.

While generally informative, Abrams’ comment unfortunately identifies 85 db, eight hours a day as the “critical level.”  But this noise exposure level is too high.  It was developed solely as an occupational noise exposure standard and should never be applied to the general public, certainly not to children.  As Dr. Daniel Fink, a noted noise activist, wrote in, “What Is A Safe Noise Level For The Public?”:

In the absence of a federal standard, an occupational standard meant to prevent hearing loss appears to have become the de facto safe level for all public noise exposures. This is demonstrated by the use of 85 decibels as a safe sound level by hearing health professionals and their organizations, in media reports, and in publications, most often without time limits; by its use as a volume limit for children’s headphones marketed to prevent hearing loss, again without exposure times; and by general acceptance of higher indoor and outdoor noise levels in the United States.

*   *   *
Eighty-five decibels is not a safe noise exposure level for the public. In 1972, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health developed an 85 A-weighted decibel recommended exposure level to reduce the risk of hearing loss from occupational noise exposure. … Even with strict time limits, this standard does not protect all workers from hearing loss.

So what is a safe noise level for the public?  Dr. Fink states:

In 1974 the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) adjusted the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommendation for additional exposure time: 24 instead of 8 hours daily and 365 instead of 240 days annually.  The EPA calculated the safe noise level for the public to prevent hearing loss to be a 70-decibel time-weighted average for a 24-hour period… The EPA did not adjust for lifetime noise exposure, now almost 80 years versus 40 work-years, so the real average safe noise level to prevent hearing loss is probably lower.

One thing is clear, allowing children to use earbuds or headphones without limiting volume and time exposure is a recipe for hearing loss.  Since the federal government has abdicated its authority to regulate noise, and manufacturers are unlikely to design products that limit the user’s ability to deliver as many decibels as he or she wants, parents must step in to protect their children’s hearing.  Here’s something that will help: Don’t allow your children to wear earbuds and headphones.  Tell them that if they want to listen to music they must play it through a speaker.  While this may be unpopular, know that you will be giving your children an important gift–the ability to listen to and enjoy music throughout their lifetimes.

 

 

Is Your Noisy Neighborhood Slowly Killing You?

Inside the science of negative sound effects, and what we can do about them.Mother Jones, writes about our increasingly noisy world and how this noisy soundscape is “contributing to stress-related diseases and early death, especially in and around cities.”  The problem is that ‘[b]y evolutionary necessity, noise triggers a potent stress response.”  Williams explains that “[o]ur nervous systems react to noises that are loud and abrupt…by instructing our bodies to boost the heart rate, breathe less deeply, and release fight-or-flight hormones.”  While this response may have saved us from predators way back when, today they increase our stress hormones, which adversely affects our health.  Williams adds that studies on children and noise exposure show that “children with chronic aircraft, road traffic or rail noise exposure at school have poorer reading ability, memory, and academic performance on national standardised tests.”

The article is very interesting and one of the better mainstream media pieces on noise and its effect on human health.  Additionally, Williams touches on an important topic that gets very little attention.  Namely, Williams discusses the uneven impact of noise on disadvantaged communities:

You can probably guess which communities face the greatest sonic barrage: the same ones stuck with the worst air, the shoddiest housing, and so on. Noise as a social justice issue is just beginning to gain traction.

Click the first link to read the entire article.  It is well worth your time.

Link via @livequiet (Quiet Revolution).

If living over an airport flight path is hell, imagine what it’s like living near a mililtary base:

Residents fed up with fighter jet noise. Madison, Wisconsin residents gird themselves as the U.S. Air Force looks for two bases to house F-35 Lightning IIs, with Truax Field in Madison on the finalist short list. The residents are concerned because they are already exposed to jet noise from F-16s.  One resident stated that the “windows of her home on Madison’s north side rattle when military jets from Truax fly over.”  Another described the F-16 noise as “ear-shattering.”

Naturally, there are forces who want the F-35 to come to Madison, claiming that the move “could create hundreds of jobs” (emphasis added).  Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce president Zach Brandon asserts that “the economic benefits and the need for communities to contribute to national defense efforts outweigh the annoyance of noise” (emphasis added).  Apparently Zach Brandon does not live over the flight path nor is aware of the health implications of noise exposure.  Or maybe he’s just distracted by visions of dollar bills.  Good luck, Madison residents.

Headphones marketed as safe for children aren’t!

kid-wearing-headphones

By Daniel Fink, M.D.

A new analysis on “the best kids’ headphones” by The Wirecutter, a product recommendations website owned by The New York Times, as reported in the New York Times science section, found that headphones marketed as “safe” for children’s hearing were louder than advertised. The Times’ article did not adequately reflect the extensive and thoughtful analysis by The Wirecutter’s reviewers, Lauren Dragan and Brent Butterworth. Their review deserves to be read (and reread) in its entirety, as it is without doubt the most complete and scientifically sound review about any noise topic that I have seen in the popular media.

The Wirecutter review mentions that two problems with headphones marketed as “safe for children”: (1) that the headphones are louder than they claim to be, and (2) that manufacturers are using an industrial-strength occupational noise exposure level as a safe noise level for children. The review doesn’t emphasize the latter point enough.

I discuss the origin of the 85 decibel noise exposure standard in detail in an editorial in the January 2017 issue of The American Journal of Public Health. The 85 decibel volume level at issue was developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to protect workers’ hearing. It comes with strict time limits–an 8-hour day, 240 days a year, for a 40-year work career–and even then does not protect all workers from hearing loss. NIOSH discussed the difference between an occupational noise standard and a safe noise level for the public earlier this year in a blog post titled, “Understanding Noise Exposure Limits: Occupational vs. General Environmental Noise.” The NIOSH post makes it very clear that 85 decibels is not a safe noise level for the public, and it certainly is not safe for toddlers or children who may be listening to music or watching videos for more than 7 hours a day, every day. In addition, children, and especially teens, are exposed to other loud noise sources–action movies, sports event, etc.–so their total noise dose likely approaches dangerous levels.

Children’s ears may be more sensitive to noise than adult ears. First, there is no doubt that an 85 decibel headphone speaker is closer to a child’s eardrum because the external auditory canal is shorter in children than adults. (Noise follows the inverse square law, so the closer a noise source is to the ear the louder it is.) Second, it’s unlikely that children will limit their listening to just 240 days a year, on average they will live for almost 80 years, and in the course of their lifetimes they will undoubtedly be exposed to more noise, in gyms, parties, rock concerts, sports events, and the like. A child’s delicate ears have to last her a whole lifetime.

Studies of auditory acuity in so-called primitive populations show that significant hearing loss in old age is not inevitable. These studies are not available online, so I can’t provide links, but the classic studies were done in the 1960’s by Rosen and colleagues in the Mabaan population in the Sudan, and by Dickson and colleagues in the Kalahari Bushmen. Rosen found that the Mabaan could carry on a conversation at normal speech volumes while facing away from each other at a distance of 100 yards. Dickson wrote that the Bushmen could hear an airplane 70 miles away. As noted in The Wirecutter review, acute hearing was a matter of life or death for our primitive ancestors, either to find food or to avoid being a predator’s meal. The Rosen and Dickson studies suggest that hearing loss so commonly seen in the U.S. is likely not part of normal part of normal physiological aging, but rather is noise-induced hearing loss–i.e., the result of a lifetime’s exposure to excessive noise. If one starts listening to 85 decibel sound at age 3, hearing loss and hearing aids may be inevitable–and at an earlier age than in the past.

What can be done to protect children’s hearing from dangerous consumer products marketed to them? The federal agencies charged with protecting the public should do their jobs. The Federal Trade Commission should take enforcement action on the grounds of false advertising against vendors claiming that headphones with the 85 decibel volume limit are safe for children. They may be safer than headphones without a volume limit, but they are by no means safe, especially without recommendations for time limits on use. The Consumer Product Safety Commission should require warning labels on headphones, earbuds, and personal music players, stating “LOUD MUSIC CAUSES DEAFNESS!” The pediatric community should do more to educate parents about the dangers of noise for children. And parents must step up and demand truly safe products for their children or deny their children access to products that will destroy their hearing.

Dr. 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 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.