Photo credit: Elevate Digital

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

“Are you noise sensitive? Here’s how to tell.” That’s a good question, and the title of an article in WIRED magazine. Writer Amy Paturel starts her article with a sound (pun intended!) comment: “Every person has a different idea of what makes a sound ‘loud,’ but there are some things we all can do to turn down the volume.” 

Unfortunately, she and the experts she quotes make a few important errors. Paturel references a recent study showing that about 20% of adults in the United Kingdom have some level of noise sensitivity. But that’s not what the study showed. The study was done to detect the presence of misophonia, a rare condition in which people have a disproportionate response to certain sounds. I wouldn’t define that as noise sensitivity, which most experts consider to be hyperacusis — a sensitivity to everyday noise which is too loud and can be painful.

“We know that repeated exposure to sounds above 75 to 85 decibels for more than eight hours a day can damage your auditory system,” said University of Colorado audiologist Donna Meinke. That’s wrong, too. The only evidence-based safe noise exposure level is a time-weighted average of 70 decibels for a day. And, the actual safe noise exposure level to prevent auditory damage may be as low as 55 A-weighted decibels* (dBA) for a single noise event and an average of 55-60 decibels for a day.

Richard Salvi, director of the University of Buffalo’s Center for Hearing and Deafness, said that normal speech hovers around 70 decibels. That’s also not quite right. That may be true of our everyday speech in typical noisy places, but normal speech in a quiet environment is only 55 dBA. I find it fascinating that the “invisible hand” of Mother Nature (or maybe Charles Darwin, or perhaps the Creator if your belief system is so inclined) decided that the sound pressure level of normal speech in a quiet environment is also the level where noise causes hearing loss.

Despite my quibbles, the rest of the discussion is worthwhile. I found Paturel’s use of a Bouncy Balls app interesting. The app increases the speed at which balls bounce, as ambient noise levels increase. She places her laptop on the table at mealtime and uses it to quiet her three sons. I only have two sons, but the simple reminder of “inside voices please,” worked for me when they were little.

Regardless of the methods, a quieter world — at home, when having fun and on the street — will be a better and healthier world for all.

*A-weighting adjusts sound level measurements for the frequencies heard in human speech.

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