Urban living may be harmful to your ears. That’s the takeaway from a study that found that more than eight in 10 New Yorkers were exposed to enough noise to damage their hearing.
Perhaps more surprising was that so much of the city dwellers’ noise exposure was related not to noisy occupations but rather to voluntary activities such as listening to music. Which makes it hard for me not to worry that when my 16-year-old son is sitting nearby with his earbuds in, I can hear his music.
There’s a pretty good chance that he’s got the volume up too loud — loud enough to potentially damage the sensory cells deep in his ear and eventually lead to permanent hearing loss.
That’s according to Christopher Chang, an ear, nose and throat doctor at Fauquier ENT Consultants in Warrenton, who sees patients every day with hearing-related issues. “What he’s hearing is way too loud, because it’s concentrated directly into the ear itself,” he says of my son, adding that the anatomy of the ear magnifies sound as it travels through the ear canal.
Listening to music through earbuds or headphones is just one way that many of us are routinely exposed to excessive noise. Mowing the lawn, going to a nightclub, riding the Metro, using a power drill, working in a factory, playing in a band and riding a motorcycle are activities that can lead to hearing problems.
Aging is the primary cause of hearing loss; noise is second, says Brian Fligor, who directs the diagnostic audiology program at Boston Children’s Hospital, and it’s usually the culprit when the condition affects younger people. Approximately 15 percent of American adults between the ages of 20 and 69 have high-frequency hearing loss, probably the result of noise exposure, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
Several studies of music listening behavior in adolescents suggest that between 15 and 25 percent of teens listen to music at volumes that put them at risk for hearing loss. Fligor, who has conducted one such study, says “the majority of kids don’t turn their headphones too loud. [But] for ear buds, my rule of thumb is 80 percent of maximum volume for 90 minutes a day.”
And when someone turns the music up louder? Well, in short spurts, that’s okay. Loudness is only one part of the equation. How long you’re exposed to loud noises also affects your risk. “The biggest concern is that teens and 20-somethings are using music players so regularly,” Chang says.
For a long time, excessive noise exposure occurred largely on the job. As a result, most knowledge about noise-induced hearing loss comes from research on occupational noise done in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This work led to regulations set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which says that workers can be exposed to 90 decibels — somewhere between the noise you’d experience from a heavy truck and a jackhammer each being operated about 15 yards away — for eight hours. For louder noises, the allowed exposure time is reduced accordingly. The OSHA Web site www.osha.gov/SLTC/noisehearingconservation/index.html includes a chart of typical noise levels.
However, these limits do not protect workers completely, experts says. “They are lax noise standards,” Fligor says, who notes that other countries have stricter limits.
How lax? “The result is a one-in-four chance of developing substantial hearing loss over a lifetime,” says Rick Neitzel, an environmental health sciences researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Neitzel believes a better limit would be an average of 70 decibels over a 24-hour period; this standard was recommended by the Environment Protection Agency when it studied the issue in the 1970s. “That’s a little louder than a person speaking. It’s fine to be over that, but for every loud experience, you need to have quiet time to balance it out.”
Staying below the EPA limit eliminates the risk of noise-induced hearing loss, Neitzel says.
In a 2012 study, Neitzel and colleagues surveyed 4,585 New Yorkers about how often and how long they spent in noisy environments and activities, including their jobs, their subway commutes, their attendance at sporting events and concerts, their use of power tools and listening to music. The researchers then calculated average daily exposures and found that 91 percent of transit users and 87 percent of others were exceeding the EPA standard.
The results surprised Neitzel because the majority of participants were professionals or office workers, “so it was nonoccupational activities that were driving their exposure,” he says. In two of every three participants, music was a major source of what the study called “voluntary exposure” to loud sounds.
Riding the subway was also a major source for some New Yorkers: 10 percent of transit users exceeded the 70-decibel goal from their time on transit alone. “When the train comes in in Manhattan, the noise is 80 to 85 decibels on average and goes upwards of 95 to 100 decibels for brief periods,” Neitzel says.
Besides advising people to turn down the earbud volume, Neitzel recommends better ear protection.
Cheap earplugs that you can buy at the drugstore offer some protection, Chang says. In addition, there are specialized ear plugs, such as ones for hunters that amplify low-level sounds and block out gunshots. Musicians’ earplugs reduce noise with higher fidelity than the muffling effect that regular plugs have: You want to hear the music that you and your orchestra mates are playing, after all.
To gauge your noise exposure, you can try mobile phone apps that function as decibel meters. You can use a noise dosimeter — there are apps for that as well as stand-alone devices available on the Web — that measures average exposure over time, Neitzel says. “If it’s below 70 decibels, you’re okay. You have nothing to worry about.”
Some music players allow the user to limit its maximum volume. But many do not. In which case: If you can hear your kids’ music coming through ear plugs or headphones, tell them to turn the volume down.
If you have any concerns about your own hearing or your children’s, you should see an audiologist for a comprehensive hearing evaluation.