Life is loud and getting louder, to the point where it is hurting people’s health. Pounding wall-to-wall music is a marketing feature for some retailers, especially those catering to a young crowd. Audience members can expect to leave over-amplified rock concerts, sports events and bars with their ears ringing. Even some entertainment for children is performed at top volume.

In and around home, people encounter noisy appliances and equipment ranging from vacuum cleaners and hand-held hair dryers to snow blowers and power lawn mowers. Industrial processes expose many workers to loud equipment. Wailing sirens, unmuffled motorcycles, passing aircraft, construction equipment, garbage and recycling trucks, street cleaning machines and snow clearing equipment make for a noisy urban soundscape.

Added to public environmental noise is the high volume of music on personal listening devices that many people are plugged into for hours on end.

The problem is that exposure to loud sounds – even music – can damage your hearing. And cumulative exposure can cause not just a temporary shift in hearing, but permanent, irreversible hearing loss.

The result is that more and more young people have been found to suffer a measurable hearing deficit – 20-year-olds with the hearing capability of 60-year-olds. One researcher at Purdue University calls them “young people with old ears.” It turns out that environmental noise is a serious public health issue.

What Can you Do?

Dangerous Decibels is a school-based education program developed by the Oregon Health and Science University. They recommend these three simple steps to reduce the risks of hearing loss caused by environmental noise:

  1. Walk away. Avoid exposure to loud sounds and noisy environments. Just leave the area.
  2. Turn it down. Keep the volume reasonable when you are listening to radio or TV, or personal audio devices.
  3. Protect yourself. If you can’t avoid the noise, wear professional-quality ear plugs. One researcher says these should become a standard safety device like seat belts and bike helmets.

Green Action Centre also recommends:

  • Remove young kids from over-loud performances. It is disappointing to miss a concert but far worse to end up with a hearing deficit. Remember, hearing damage from environmental noise is cumulative.
  • Educate kids, pre-teens and teens about what the risks are and how to protect their hearing.
  • Tell concert promoters and retail managers if you find the sound is too loud. E-mail stores and performers through their web sites. Event organizers and retailers need to hear from potential customers, so they will get the message.
  • Let your representatives know if you think that noise levels should be more effectively regulated as a public health protection measure.
  • As a respite from urban noise, take time to enjoy quiet spaces and listen to the sounds of nature.

Background and Links

  • In a survey by Australia’s National Acoustic Laboratories, about 25% of participants were found to be using portable music players at levels high enough to cause hearing damage.
  • Research by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People in Great Britain determined that young people age 18 to 24 are more likely to exceed safe listening limits.
  • Musicians themselves are concerned enough about their own potential hearing loss that they have formed an association — Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers or H.E.A.R..
  • In British Columbia, some people have established the Right to Quiet Society.
  • The Hearing Foundation of Canada offers an educational program for schools.
  • Workplace noise is a serious health issue. The Occupational Health Centre of the Manitoba Federation of Labour offers a fact sheet, Noise in the Workplace (PDF).
  • Detailed information on the physical mechanisms of noise induced hearing loss is available through the US National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
  • Environmental noise can also disrupt sleep, add to stress and irritability, and make it hard to concentrate, as noted in a report (PDF) from the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (2009).
  • Countries of the European Union are developing noise policies, starting with motor traffic, railway, aircraft and industrial noise sources.

We would like to hear from you.

Where have you been lately, where the noise was too loud? What is your experience? How do you protect your own and your family’s hearing? Please share your thoughts, questions, solutions and stories.