Hearing Safety and Noise Induced Hearing Loss

We have talked about the human hearing system, and very little about hearing safety, so I felt the need to come back to this subject because I’ve noticed a lot of people that are not aware of the damage loud sound can induce to their hearing system.

I’ve been to a lot of bars, clubs, concerts, weddings, etc. where the sound level was way beyond acceptable. When this happens I usually get out of the loud area and protect my ears. I have also made  a pact with myself to always carry ear plugs for these kind of events.

Hearing safety and Noise Induced hearing loss

Last year, I’ve been to a concert where my father was proud that he got us tickets in the second row. Well, I am not saying that it wasn’t nice, but sometimes the speakers were so loud that I felt my ear hurt and I covered my ears. You know that at concerts the sound pressure could go higher than 125 dB? Well…you are safe a bit over 85, so 125 dB is enormous.

I’ve also been to some weddings where the dj / band played the music at an unbearable level. I heard a lot of people complaining about that, and never understood why nobody told them to lower the damn volume a little. Well…I understood the process better at my wedding, where I hired a dj too.

Some people complained that the volume was too high, and I understood them, because they were closer to the speakers. I talked to the DJ and he told me he will lower the volume. After a while I see that nothing changed. Went to him again and told him and his reply was that I should let him do his job, that he knows what needs to be done to entertain a party and what volumes were needed. Being in the middle of the wedding, I didn’t want to make a scene or ruin the party, so I let it slide after convincing him to lower the volumes at least a little bit.

This is not a isolated incident, as I’ve stumbled upon it on many occasions with different djs at different events. They think they are smart, but I  consider them ignorant idiots. Why am I being so drastic ? Because people aren’t aware of the danger these idiots put them through. This is the main reason I am writing this article. I want to increase the awareness on the subject. Some of my friends say that I am the crazy one, an audiophile that is so scared for his ears that exaggerates on the matter. Well, I must insist that I have dozens of examples where some of my other friends found the volume too loud as well, going outside with me because they could not stand the sound pressure. Others were aware that the volume was too high stayed inside anyway, not being aware of the risks.

I am talking about more than 120 db, here, so please believe me when I am saying that I am not exaggerating.

Let’s put this in perspective for a better understanding.

Intensity is the power density of a sound wave. It is proportional to the square of the pressure.

An increase of 10 dB means that a sound is 10 times more intense, or powerful. To your ears, it sounds twice as loud. For example the sound at 120 dB is perceived as 4 times as loud (100 times more intense) as a sound at 100 dB and 8 time the sound at 80 dB ( 10000 more intense). The human hearing is represented on a scale from 0 to 140 dB.

The sound of an ambulance siren at 120 decibels is about 1 trillion times more intense than the weakest sound our ears can hear. Sounds that reach 120 decibels are painful to our ears at close distances.

Example of some decibel ratings:

0       dB   Threshold of hearing
30      dB   Whisper
40      dB   Buzz of mosquito
50      dB   Normal conversation
70      dB   Vacuum cleaner / car - > EPA ( US Environmental Protection Agency ) 
             identified this level to cause
             hearing damage with a prolonged exposure of more than 24h
80-90   dB   Busy Traffic - prolongued exposure (8h/day) can induce hearing damage
95      dB   Table saw 
100     dB   Hand Drill / Motorcycle
120     dB   Threshold of pain
100-130 dB   Rock Concert / Weddings / Clubs / etc
140     dB   Even short exposure can cause permanent damage
140     dB   Gunshot
165     dB   12 gauge shotgun
180     dB   Rocket launching
194     dB   Loudest audible tone 

If sitting in a 80-90 dB noise environment could induce hearing damage in 8 hours, sitting in front of speakers in clubs / concerts / weddings could expose you to 120 dB which will begin to damage hearing in only ~ 7 minutes. So if you feel / think it is too loud or feel the least discomfort in your ears, do yourself a major favor and move further away. Trust your feelings.

I’ve stumbled upon a very interesting article here that describes the risks we expose ourselves while going to concerts or very loud events.

Besides loosing part of your hearing which is very serious on it’s own, another more important problem could appear : tinnitus .

Tinnitus is a neurological problem that originates in the brain, involving miscommunication between noise-damaged sensory cells; the result is a continuous ringing sound in the ears. Tinnitus is permanent. Once sensitive hair cells are damaged, they can no longer transmit impulses to the auditory nerve and to the brain. It is the sensation of hearing ringing, buzzing, hissing, chirping, whistling, or other sounds. The noise can be intermittent or continuous, and can vary in loudness. It is often worse when background noise is low, so you may be most aware of it at night when you’re trying to fall asleep in a quiet room. In rare cases, the sound beats in sync with your heart(pulsatile tinnitus).

Tinnitus is very common, affecting an estimated 50 million adults in the U.S. For most people, the condition is merely an annoyance. In severe cases, however, tinnitus can cause people to have difficulty concentrating and sleeping. It may eventually interfere with work and personal relationships, resulting in psychological distress.

At her clinic at the New York Hearing Center, Kathy Feng has seen many patients with temporary hearing damage from rock concerts—but, reassuringly, she tells me that their damage is rarely full-blown tinnitus. “The degree of hearing damage [from loud music] has a lot to do with how long the person was exposed to dangerous levels of noise,” says a representative from her team, who (much to the support of my mounting hypochondria) points out that riding the subway is also bad for your ears. (Cell phone usage also increases your risk of tinnitus.)

What Causes Tinnitus?

Prolonged exposure to loud sounds is the most common cause of tinnitus. Up to 90% of people with tinnitus have some level of noise-induced hearing loss. The noise causes permanent damage to the sound-sensitive cells of the cochlea, a spiral-shaped organ in the inner ear.

Tinnitus may come with different intensity and you may hear ringing because of it. Imagine that you will forget what quiet means, as the most quiet place will mean that you will still hear the ringing. Imagine that this could go on for the rest of your life.

You will have a “small friend” ringing in your ears forever:

You’ll have problems sleeping, resting, concentrating and having a normal life.

Some cases are so unbearable that lead the victim to suicide. This is an example right here : “Rock music fan Robert McIndoe killed himself after being driven to despair by tinnitus that lasted for three months” . You can find more examples of suicides because of tinnitus right here and a discussion about it here.

As you can see, the problem is very serious. However, wherever I look, it seems that people aren’t aware of these risks. I would first blame the ones behind the music and speakers. When I say they are behind the speakers, I mean that literally, as they usually stand behind them and sometimes with headphones on their ears. So they aren’t in front of the sound waves, being more protected than their listeners.

They should be more responsible and they should even be fined / legally punished for this.

There should be an organisation that monitors these activities and protects the health of the population. This organisation should also make the people aware of this since early years of biology in schools.

I see that USA has this kind of organisation : Environmental Protection Agency and they are aware of the problem : EPA identifies noise levels affecting health and welfare .

This is a very good sign and it pleases me to see people taking action on this. However, I am not sure how efficient they are. Not to say that other countries may not have such organisations. If we have something like this in Romania, I can tell you that it could be missing altogether and it would make no difference. Practically, everybody is the king of the volume knob here and uses it with no restrains in concerts, clubs, weddings, etc.

Don’t let their ignorance / stupidity affect your health. Take care of yourself. I am not telling you not to go to concerts, weddings, parties, etc. Just be careful and take care of your ears. Don’t stay right near the speakers and always have ear plugs with you. I am serious, the earplugs are your best friends in these kind of situation. There are companies that have an entire line of products in this category. Etymotic is one of them.

ER•20XS High-Fidelity Earplugs

And don’t think this is couldn’t happen with your headphones/speakers. Try to keep safe listening levels as much as you can, no matter the situation.