One of the nice things about doing a Google search is the serendipity of coming across something else.
I recently saw a mention of a World Health Organization statement that children shouldn’t be exposed to noise above 120 decibels, so I began searching for the source of that statement. While searching, I found this 2009 WHO PowerPoint presentation (pdf) about the adverse health effect of noise on children–not just hearing loss, but hypertension, increases in stress hormone levels, and difficulties learning, among a multitude of other adverse effects. Eventually, I found the 120 decibel recommendation in the WHO 1999 Community Noise Guidelines monograph.
It’s distressing that this information clearly has been known for so long–the pediatric noise hazards for almost a decade, the Community Noise Guidelines for almost two decades—and we still haven’t done anything to protect our children from noise.
With our first grandchild just born, I will renew my efforts to protect children and all people from the dangers of noise. I hope he grows up in a quieter world.
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’s Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.
My main noise issue is restaurant noise, but I have learned about other noise issues, too. When I figured out that the oft-cited 85 decibel standard is an occupational noise exposure standard, and not a safe noise exposure standard for the public, I sent emails and letters to the audiologists quoted in media reports. When I realized that 85 decibels was used as a safe volume limit for headphones marketed for toddlers as young as 3 years, I called this to the attention of pediatricians, the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Centers for Disease Control. My efforts, sadly, have thus far been unsuccessful.
My worries were based on theoretical concerns. There was no way that loud noise without a time exposure limit could be safe for children. Now this report documents that the hearing loss I was worried about isn’t a theoretical concern any more. Namely, the news article writes about a study conducted by Erasmus Medical Centre in Holland, in which scientists “studied more than 5,000 children aged nine to 11-years-old over three years, found one in seven of the youngsters had suffered some hearing loss.”
The study is preliminary. The hearing tests were done as part of a study of normal child development in Rotterdam, but not specifically to determine whether personal music player use caused hearing loss. More than 5,000 children were enrolled in the study, but complete hearing tests were available for only about 3,000, and personal music player use was assessed by parental report. Despite these limitations, the study found that 14% of the children, now just under 11 years old, had some type of hearing impairment.
That said, one must ask what is causing this early onset hearing loss. The researchers believe the cause may be children’s use of headphones to listen to portable music players.
Maybe this will spur regulatory authorities into action. At the very least, parents and grandparents can take these headphones away from their little darlings, and give them instead the gift of continued good hearing.
The problem with headphones isn’t just hearing loss. As a parent and soon to be grandparent, I know that talking with children and listening to what they say–almost from the time they are born–is one of the most important ways to teach them words and language, to establish a relationship with them, and to educate them about the world. Giving the child a personal music player or video player and headphones can occupy the child for hours–it’s certainly easier than carrying books and reading them to the child, or giving the child a paper and crayons, or playing with dolls or trucks or Legos–and it allows the parent to watch or listen to his or her own cellphone or personal electronic device, but it probably isn’t the best thing for the child, either.
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’s Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association board from 2015-2018.
This report from a Phoenix, Arizona television station mentions children’s toys that are so loud they can damage hearing. Noise level is an important thing for parents, grandparents, and aunts, uncles, and friends to think about during the holiday season and all year long.
The only thing I disagree with in the report is the statement, “[t]he maximum sound level a child should be exposed to is 85 decibels.” I don’t think there is any scientific basis for this statement. The National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders states, “[l]ong or repeated exposure to sound at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss.” But the NIDCD fails to give a time limit.
The 85 decibel standard comes from the occupational noise exposure level, which is 85 A-weighted decibels. It isn’t a safe noise exposure standard without a time limit, and it doesn’t protect all exposed workers from hearing loss.
If you are unsure whether the noise level is safe, either get a sound meter app for your smart phone or follow this simple rule: If it sounds too loud, it IS too loud! If you can’t converse easily over a sound, it’s above 75 A-weighted decibels, which is the Auditory Injury Threshold, and hearing damage is occurring.
Children rely on us to protect them from many things, and noise exposure is one them. So this holiday season, do a little research before you buy to make sure you are getting the children in your life fun and safe toys.
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.
Jennifer King Lindley, Real Simple, has written a fascinating article about the importance of quiet time for children entitled, “The One Thing Your Kid Needs—and Isn’t Getting.” Lindley begins her piece with an interview of Arline Bronzaft, PhD, noted noise activist and co-founder of The Quiet Coalition, whose landmark research “found that the reading scores of elementary students in classrooms located next to train tracks lagged a full year behind their peers in quieter classrooms on the other side of the building.” Dr. Bronzaft states that not only does noise interfere with learning, it causes a great deal of stress that leads to learned helplessness, “the feeling that you just have to sit there and take it,” which then causes still more stress.
But noise doesn’t just interfere with formal education, as Lindley tells us that “even moderate background noise can interfere with the ability of babies to learn new words.”
So what can you do to protect your children? Lindley offers specific advice for young children and teens, but both sets of advice basically distill down to two important elements: reducing background noise and distracting devices and learning to embrace quiet time.
Lindley’s article is an interesting read and well worth your time. Click the link above to read it in full.
Interactive, multi-disciplinary, STEM lessons and activities [that] introduce students and teachers to the study of the New York City sound environment, New York City’s Noise Code, and the public health issues, both mental and physical, associated with noise.
One element of the elementary lesson plan is the book “Listen to the Raindrops,” by Dr. Arline Bronzaft, noted noise activist, GrowNYC board member, and a co-founder of The Quiet Coalition. Dr. Bronzaft writes about her involvement in the DEP’s groundbreaking noise education efforts:
For years I have conducted research and written on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health, including the impacts of noise on children’s learning. One day discussing noise with a children’s book writer, she suggested that I take a stab at writing a book to teach children about the dangers of noise. My first response was that I was not suited for the task, but she said, “if not you, who?” When I left her apartment, I took pencil to paper and during the hour trip back to my home I completed the book “Listen to the Raindrops.” The book, which was written in rhyme, aimed to teach children about the beauty of the good sounds around them and the dangers of noise, especially to their ears.
A children’s book requires illustrations, of course, and I was fortunate that Steve Parton, an illustrator, and the father of a daughter who had received one of the first cochlear implants, agreed to provide the illustrations. After reading the book to a number of classes and listening to the children’s comments, it was clear that Steve’s illustrations beguiled the children.
For years I have worked closely with DEP in our joint efforts to bring the decibel level down in this city. Much still needs to be done, but I was delighted when the DEP’s educational arm added a sound/noise component to its website and asked to include “Listen to the Raindrops” to its curriculum.
The DEP has recently launched its sound and noise curriculum–it is online and all are invited to go to the site to see it. Now we need you to spread the word about the curriculum. Noise is not just a New York City problem. Cities and towns worldwide can include noise education in their school curricula. The federal Environmental Protection Agency also has materials on its website that educate elementary school children about the harmful effects of noise ( e.g., Listen Up!), but at one time the agency made a greater effort than today to reach out to schools nationwide about teaching children about the dangers of noise.
Let us alert public officials, educators, and all citizens to the importance of teaching children early on that noise will harm their ears, their learning ability, and their overall health. Promoting these educational materials will also inform the general public about the deleterious impacts of noise, as the children will undoubtedly bring home the sound and noise information they learn at school and become spokespersons for quieting our surroundings. And the children shall lead!
Cat Bowen, Romper, looks at whether fireworks can hurt babies’ ears. Bowen, who is deaf, has a daughter who is hard of hearing, so she is particularly concerned about the impact of noisy fireworks, writing “that what little hearing we have, we want to protect at all costs.”
Bowen points to a Boys Town National Research Hospital report which states that “fireworks register at over 140 decibels of sound” and recommends safe distances for adults and children. Bowen writes that adults “need to be about 65 feet away from the fireworks to be considered safe,” but it’s more than double that for a child.
But what about babies? Bowen says that “it’s different with babies,” because there is no hearing protection gear made for infants under six months. So “[c]an fireworks hurt your baby’s ears?” “Absolutely,” says Bowen, who recommends that you limit your baby’s exposure, try using protective headphones, and “keep you and your baby as far from the fireworks as you can while still enjoying the view.”
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
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.
From the book The Human Body and Health Revised by Alvin Davison, 1908 / Public Domain
And Experts Say Earphones Are Part Of The Problem. Lori Mack, WNPR, reports on hearing experts’ growing concern about the potential health hazard earbuds and headphones pose to children. Mack states that “[s]tudies show hearing loss among kids and teens is up about 30 percent higher than it was in the ’80s and ’90s,” adding that “[e]xperts believe earphones are part of the problem.” A problem that turns on volume and time exposure. Simply put, the louder the sound, the less time it takes to damage your hearing.
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.
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.