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We live in a world that for many people, surrounds us with environmental noise throughout our day -and sometimes into the night. Noise pollution is a very real health threat built from the excessively loud sounds that are layered throughout our environment. Noise pollution can have long term effects on our hearing as well as impact mood and anxiety, so it is important to recognize when noise pollution is present and to protect yourself from harm.
Hearing Loss and Excess Noise
One of the main health effects of exposure to noise pollution is permanent hearing loss. Noise-related hearing loss is both the most common type of hearing loss and, sadly, the most preventable. Noise related hearing loss happens when dangerous sound volumes stress and damage the delicate sensory cells our body uses to detect sound.
When something emits a sound, a sound wave vibrates through the air and into our ear canal. In order for us to detect a sound, its vibration must be noticed by very small “hair cells” located in the inner ear. These cells are designed to translate a detected sound wave in the air into an electric signal the brain can interpret. We rely on having many hair cells to give us an accurate, nuanced sense of hearing.
Unfortunately, while these small cells are very sensitive, they are also vulnerable to damage when very loud sounds stress them beyond their capacity. Unlike many cell types in the body, hair cells are unable to repair or replace themselves, and so a damaged hair cell is permanently taken out of commission, diminishing our hearing accuracy.
What Is Dangerous Noise?
When thinking about harmful noise and noise pollution, it is important to understand several thresholds for what can harm our hearing. Volume is measured in an exponential unit called decibels (dB). The quietest sound human ears can detect occurs at 0 dB while normal speaking usually registers at around 60 dB.
Sounds begin to be perceived as “loud” and have the potential to harm our hearing at around 75 dB – about the volume of an average vacuum cleaner. Loud sounds stress our hearing and can cause permanent damage to occur to our hair cells. The louder the sound, the quicker it causes hearing loss. While sounds below 75 dB do not cause hearing injury, an unrelenting sound level of 75 dB will begin to damage our hearing after 24 hours of exposure.
Workers need to be aware of when 85 dB of sound is present. At 85 dB, hearing damage occurs within 8 hours of continuous exposure. Loud workplaces like factories, airports, construction sites and repair shops have the potential to consistently expose employees to 85 dB of sound throughout an 8-hour work shift and workers are entitled to hearing protection. Louder sound levels are even more harmful. An average rock concert projects sound at around 100 dB where hearing is harmed in under 15 minutes. Very loud sounds, those above 120 dB – like gunshots and firecrackers will damage your hearing instantly if you do not have hearing protection. When sound reaches the threshold of 140 dB it will cause physical pain in your ear (along with instant hearing permanent hearing damage).
Monitoring Noise Pollution
While our world is louder than it has ever been, monitoring your surrounding noise levels has never been easier. Free apps like DecibelX can turn your smartphone into a decibel meter and alert you to harmful noise pollution. If you think you may be surrounded by harmful noise levels regularly, using a decibel meter is a good way to check your exposure.
When harmful noise is present in your life, you need hearing protection. For those with regular noise exposure your process should start with talking to a hearing specialist. Your hearing specialist can fit you for appropriate, effective hearing protection, such as reusable ear plugs, to reduce your noise exposure risk.
Supporting noise regulation is also part of protecting hearing – on a societal level. Advocate for noise reduction in your neighborhood or city and support legislation that limits the hours and volumes of noise in your locality. On a household level, minimize your contribution to noise pollution by investing in quiet appliances, turning down volume levels and instituting quiet hours in your day to allow your hearing to rest.