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Here’s the best mass-media article on noise-induced hearing loss

Photo credit: rainy city licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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

Despite impacting 48 million Americans, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) has languished in the shadows for decades. But that’s changing! Check out the 17-page beautifully illustrated article in the September issue of Real Simple magazine*, a Time/Life publication with 8.5 million readers nationwide (that’s eight times larger than the New York Times readership of 1.1 million).

If you’ve been looking for a “quick overview” you can hand to friends and family who fail to understand America’s unrecognized problem with hearing loss—whether it’s your kids’ and their constant earbud (ab)use, friends who can’t understand conversations when you’re dining out, or an elderly relative who’s stopped paying attention and is increasingly depressed—this article should get the conversation started. And if they ask “what else can I read about this?” Tell them to look at this issue of Scientific American, new information from the Centers for Disease Control, and this one-page Fact Sheet on the health effects of noise that The Quiet Coalition (TQC) published in 2016.

It’s clear that NIHL is, as TQC’s chair, Daniel Fink, MD, says, “a growing problem in America nearing epidemic proportions.” But there’s a lot of work to do to get people (including the nation’s leaders) to understand that this is a legitimate public health problem. Frankly, the European Union and Asia are far ahead of us on this issue.

In the meantime, take heart: major media are beginning to notice! Congratulations to the editor of Real Simple for recognizing this growing health crisis. We are extremely grateful that her magazine cited three of TQC’s Steering Committee experts in this piece–Rick Neitzel, PhD, Arline Bronzaft, PhD, and Bradley Vite–and also
described two practical success stories. We hope Real Simple will continue to cover this issue and give it the attention it deserves.

We have only one complaint: the magazine erroneously states that 85 dB is the threshold of hearing damage. In fact, research has shown that permanent hearing damage starts at noise levels as low as 75 dB; furthermore, non-audiological health effects, such as cardiovascular effects, can be caused by noises as low as 55 dB.

*NOTE: the best place to find Real Simple magazine may be at the checkout counter at Whole Foods or a local book store. Or you can get it here.

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

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.

Is the mystery of “The Hum” solved?

Photo credit: eutrophication&hypoxi licensed under CC BY 2.0

News.com.au reports that scientists believe they have discovered the source of the mysterious hum that “can drive [some] people to the brink of madness.” For those who can hear it, “‘The Hum‘ can cause sleepless nights, stress and nosebleeds and is described as a relentless ‘kind of torture’ with no explanation.” Various theories have been bandied about as to the source–submarines, gas pipes, and even mating fish–but in the end the explanation is far less fanciful. Scientists Fabrice Ardhuin, Lucia Gualtieri, and Eleonore Stutzmann believe that the “microseismic activity, recorded everywhere on Earth, is largely due to ocean waves.” So how do ocean waves make the hum? The scientists postulate that “the pressure of the waves on the sea-floor causes the earth to vibrate like a bell and creates a sound that is heard more by some than others.”

Of course the answer won’t bring relief to those who suffer from the hum (known as “hummers”), but it may help them from being misdiagnosed with tinnitus.

 

 

New hearing aid filters out noise (but not as well as your own ears and brain)

Photo credit: Steve Johnson licensed under CC by 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Engineers at Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science have made an advance in hearing aid design that reportedly will allow users to better understand speech in noisy environments by combining auditory and neurological signal processing techniques. No doubt the millions of people who suffer with hearing loss appreciate the efforts to tackle this health issue. But why do we see article after article focusing on funding for treatments or cures of hearing loss but nothing about funding hearing loss prevention?

We think the better option is to prevent noise-induced hearing loss by avoiding exposure to loud noise. The human ear and brain are designed to process incoming sound well and probably do this better than any electronic gizmo can. Research shows that noise damages not just the ear but directly damages the brain as well, at least in animal models.

And for those who already have hearing loss–and even for those who don’t–quieter indoor and outdoor environments will allow everyone to converse more easily. The techniques for creating indoor quiet are well known: eliminate noise sources if possible, isolate noise sources that can’t be eliminated, use sound absorbing materials on floors, walls, ceilings, and furniture, and use architectural features to break up reflected sound waves. And while some may balk at the cost of implementing these techniques, there is one no cost option everyone can use: turn down the volume of amplified sound from rock concert levels to hearing preservation levels!

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.

 

Hearing Restoration: A Step Closer?

Photo credit: Ronna Hertzano et al. licensed under CC BY 2.5

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

A recent report that scientists in Boston have caused human hair cells to regrow in the laboratory is exciting news, holding out the promise of hearing restoration in the future.

But it is important to remember two facts:

1. Development and then approval of this technology for human use are likely to be years if not decades in the future, and the technology will most likely be very expensive.

2. Noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable and prevention is either free or inexpensive: avoid loud noise exposure and use hearing protection (ear plugs or ear muffs) if one can’t.

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.

 

A lowly fly may offer hope to hearing loss sufferers

Photo credit: Jpaur licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

And Michelle Pucci, TVO, tells us how in her article, “How a tiny fly on a treadmill could lead to better hearing aids.” Pucci introduces us to the research team studying the ormia ochracea, a small fly that is drawn to “crickets’ singing, but no one quite knows how it manages to pick out that sound amid the cacophony of the natural world and locate it so precisely.” Why is this important?  Because if researchers can determine how the fly “pinpoints individual sounds in a noisy setting,” writes Pucci, “it could help solve the so-called cocktail party problem — the one that makes it tough for your grandmother to hear what you’re saying at family functions (and causes her to shout at you), because her hearing aid picks up too much background noise.”

Andrew Mason, a biologist at the University of Toronto explains that the fly’s “eardrums work like a scale, and incoming noises tip the balance.” Unlike humans, the fly’s “eardrums are connected — which Mason says could explain why the fly tries to interpret the different levels of sound it receives in both ears.”  Humans, on the other hand, can “locate and isolate the sounds they want to listen to, even in noisy environments, if the sources are far enough away from one another.”

The problem hearing aid wearers experience is that “it’s impossible to focus on a single conversation in a noisy room…because hearing aids trick the ear into thinking all those sounds are the same distance away.” That is, the hearing aid amplifies everything, making the task of concentrating on one conversation among many impossible. As researchers learn more about the ormia ochracea’s excellent sound-location abilities, engineers have used that knowledge.  Today, mics in some hearing aid design “mimic the fly’s ear structure,” and “research groups around the world are working on hearing aids that would allow the wearer to home in on different frequencies.”

So why do ormia ochracea search for crickets?  The answer is pretty grim:

[T]he female deposits its spawn inside the crickets, who sing when looking for a mate. Black-striped larvae then hatch inside the doomed cricket and scrape at its innards for 10 days…before “bursting out of the side like in Alien.”

Another Silent Spring

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” described the harmful effects of insecticides and herbicides on birds, beneficial insects, animals, and humans.  Her book helped start the environmental movement. For too many people, this will be another silent spring, caused not by a dearth of birds but because people can’t hear birds sing. They have hearing loss from another environmental pollutant, noise.

Carson described how nature’s balance controlled pest species naturally, and how these species became problems only when humans changed the environment. She noted the difference between apparent short-term safety of agrichemicals and longer-term danger. People could get sprayed with pesticides or even ingest them without apparent immediate harm, with cancer and birth defects coming later.

If Carson were alive today, she might write about noise pollution, which interferes with animal feeding, communication, mating behaviors, and navigation in forests, fields, and oceans, and causes hearing loss and other medical problems in humans.  In nature’s quiet, animals developed exquisite hearing to find food or avoid being eaten. An owl can find a mouse under a foot of snow, and zebras can hear lions approaching in the veldt.

Humans are also born with excellent hearing.  Brief exposure to loud noise usually doesn’t cause obvious auditory damage in humans, but longer or repeated exposure does. The relationship between noise and hearing loss was first noted in medieval times in bell ringers and miners, then in boilermakers during the industrial revolution.  Noise wasn’t a widespread problem, and except in large cities life was usually quiet.

Industrialization, mechanization, and urbanization made life noisier.  Noise was recognized as a public health hazard in the early days of interstate highways and jet travel, but was also considered an environmental pollutant. In 1972 Congress passed the Noise Pollution and Abatement Act, empowering the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish noise standards and require noise labeling for consumer and industrial products.

During the Reagan administration, however, Congress defunded EPA noise control activities. Little has been done since to control noise, and our country has gotten noticeably louder. Sound levels of 90-100 decibels or louder are reported in restaurants, clubs, retail stores, movie theaters, gyms, sports events, concerts, and parties, from sirens, vehicles, landscape maintenance equipment, and construction, and for those using personal music players.

The National Institutes of Health states that prolonged exposure to noise at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. This is misleading, because no exposure time is given and hearing damage occurs at much lower levels. The 85-decibel standard is an occupational noise exposure standard, not a safe noise level for the public.. The EPA adjusted the occupational standard for additional noise exposure outside the workplace to calculate the noise level for preventing hearing loss to be a daily time-weighted average of only 70 decibels.

Hearing is the social sense, required for spoken communication. About 40 million American adults age 20-69 have noise induced hearing loss, half of them without noisy jobs. Why is this happening? They are exposed to loud everyday noise.  Cumulative noise exposure eventually causes hearing loss, affecting 25% of those in their 60s, half in their 70s, and 80% in their 80s, and is correlated with social isolation, depression, dementia, falls, and mortality. Due to denial, stigma, and cost only 20% of older Americans with hearing loss acquire hearing aids, after an average seven-year delay, and 40% of people with hearing aids don’t use them much, largely because hearing aids don’t help users understand speech well in noisy environments.

Preventing noise-induced hearing loss is simple: avoid loud noise. If it sounds too loud, it is too loud. Free or inexpensive smart phone sound meter apps make it easy to measure sound levels, but if one can’t converse without straining to speak or to be heard, ambient noise is above the auditory injury threshold of 75-78 decibels and auditory damage is occurring.

A quieter world is easily attainable. Whisper-quiet dishwashers, cars with quiet interiors and exhausts, the Airbus A380, and a few quiet restaurants and stores prove this.   Effective noise control technologies have long existed, including noise reduction via design and material specifications and sound insulating, isolating, reflecting, diffusing, or absorbing techniques.  Indoors, all that may be necessary is turning down the background music volume, which costs nothing.

In the 1950s and 1960s, half of all American men smoked and public spaces and workplaces were filled with tobacco smoke. When research showed that tobacco smoke caused cancer and heart disease, governments restricted smoking, leading eventually to today’s largely smoke-free society. Smokers can still smoke, but can’t expose others involuntarily to their smoke.

Noise causes hearing loss. Governments should set and enforce indoor and outdoor noise standards, to reduce each person’s daily noise dose. Adults have the right to make and listen to all the noise they want, but not where others can hear them. If we can breathe smoke-free air, we can make a quieter world, so future generations won’t have to endure another silent spring.

Dr. Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area.  He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association and 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.

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.