If you had to guess the most common chronic illnesses affecting Americans, you’d probably think of ailments related to genetics or harmful lifestyle choices, such as excess consumption of high-calorie, high-sugar foods, cigarette smoking, or alcohol and drug use. The surprising truth is that hearing loss has become the third most common chronic health condition in the U.S., and noise pollution is a major contributor.
According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report published in 2017, a quarter of adults have been affected by noise-induced hearing-loss or show signs of hearing impairment. Regular exposure to loud or constant noise has lasting effects on the ear, causing sound to become distorted or undetected by the brain. Although the mechanisms that enable humans to hear can recover over time, certain types of exposure can lead to permanent impairment to one’s hearing ability. All it may take is a single incident of extremely loud noise, even a very brief one, to result in lasting, irreversible damage.
Since we can only do so much to change our surroundings where some of the most extreme sounds can occur, it’s important to take note of decibel levels and control the noise where we can. This includes observing guidelines set forth by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSHA), which recommends that noise be limited to 85 decibels or less, and that workers are subjected to such noise levels for no more than eight hours a day. Such a level is still quite loud—loud enough to cause hearing loss.
Limiting sound levels to 70 decibels—the once recommended limit by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)— wherever and whenever possible might be better for preventing impaired hearing. The National Institute of Health (NIH) currently advises that any sound above 75 decibels can have a negative impact on the ability to hear. Even if surroundings don’t seem disruptive on the surface, the cumulative effects can contribute to significant hearing loss over time.
One problem with trying to accurately gauge whether environmental noise is potentially damaging is that everyone experiences sound different. Many people have simply grown accustom to being surrounded by loud and constant noises. Decibel levels are also difficult to gauge by those who are unfamiliar with this system of measurement. Fortunately, technology now makes it easy to determine just how loud one’s surroundings may be. There are numerous apps that can provide decibel level readings, making it possible to tell whether sound levels are hazardous using a smartphone. The CDC offers such an app for free.
Making decibel level checks a regular part of modern life could help prevent serious hearing impairment for thousands of people, not just at work, but at home, in the car, and in environments where noise levels can quickly escalate, such as movie theaters, restaurants, and bars. If noise cannot be reduced due to the nature of an occupation, task, or activity, appropriate precautions can be taken to significantly reduce the risk of hearing loss, including the use of wearable hearing protection and incorporation of acoustic barriers. Implementing these solutions effectively, however, all depends on how we understand just how noisy our surroundings really are.