Measuring sound levels

Photo credit: Phonical licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

People sometimes wonder how to measure sound levels. Until recently, one had to buy a sound meter. OSHA-certified ones can cost more than $1000, although reasonable quality sound meters have long been available for less than $100, but technology changed all that. Now there are free or inexpensive sound meter apps for both Android and Apple smartphones.

I lack both the technical knowledge and the equipment to evaluate these, but fortunately researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have done the work.

The apps for iPhones are more accurate than those for Android phones due to standardization of hardware and software, but there are a lot of good free apps available.  NIOSH offers one that it developed for workers but is free to all.

But you really don’t need a sound meter app to know if it’s too loud. If you need to strain to speak or to be heard at the normal social distance of 3-4 feet, the ambient noise is above 75 A-weighted decibels (dBA) and your hearing is at risk. The auditory injury threshold is only 75-78 dBA. Regardless of what your sound meter says, or even if you can somehow converse despite the noise, if the noise is loud enough to bother your ears, that also indicates that your hearing is probably being damaged.

There are individual variations in sensitivity to noise. What is loud enough to bother you may not bother someone else. It’s clear that some people are more sensitive to noise than others, just as some people don’t get a sunburn even in the brightest sun and others don’t seem to gain weight despite what they eat.

So if the noise is bothering you, either leave the noisy environment or put in your earplugs.

As I often write, “if it sounds too loud, it IS too loud.”

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