Photo credit: Bri Schneiter

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I developed tinnitus and hyperacusis after a one-time exposure to loud noise at a New Year’s Eve party at the end of 2017 and became a noise activist in December of 2014, trying to make the world a quieter place. My first attempt at advocacy was to speak to the local Health and Safety Commission in January of 2015. The commissioners questioned me sharply about what the safe noise exposure level was, and why noise was a problem. It became obvious to me, in that moment, that trying to convince others that the world was too noisy and that noise was bad would be an impossible task when “everyone knew” that the safe noise exposure level was 85 decibels (dB) or A-weighted* decibels (dBA). In 2015, the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders webpage stated: “Know which noises can cause damage (those at or above 85 dB),” implying that anything up to 84 dB was safe for hearing without an exposure time limit. At the same time, the standard definition of noise was, noise is unwanted sound.

Through research, I learned that the only evidence-based safe noise exposure level was a time-weighted average of 70 dB for 24 hours, calculated by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1974. I presented a paper about this in 2016 at a meeting for the Institute for Noise Control Engineering in Rhode Island, and subsequently published an editorial about it in the American Journal of Public Health. I thought about the industrial-strength 85 dB or dBA noise exposure level, based on the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended exposure level for occupational noise. I realized that NIOSH needed to recalculate this limit downward due to noise exposure before working years and outside work during working years; the need to consider lifetime noise exposure; and the need to use more sensitive measures of auditory damage than limited-range pure tone screening audiometry.

As I thought more about the safe noise exposure level, I realized that it’s even lower than the EPA’s 70 dB daily average, possibly as low as 55 dBA for a single noise event and 55-60 dB for a day. I presented papers about these analyses at the December 2022 meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Tennessee, one paper last year and another earlier this year.

Noise causes auditory and non-auditory health problems, so I set out to redefine noise to include recognition of the harm that noise causes. I made a poster presentation about this topic at the December 2022 ASA meeting in California, and then published a paper about the new definition of noise, noise is unwanted and/or harmful sound. The new definition opens the 2021 American Public Health Association policy statement and was adopted by the International Commission on Biological Effects of Noise and added to the ICBEN Constitution in 2023. So far my efforts to get the new definition added to dictionaries has been unsuccessful, although the Wikipedia article about noise states that “noise is wanted or harmful sound.”

My quixotic quest for quiet continued at the ASA meeting in Canada earlier this year, where I presented a paper about a revised, comprehensive definition of noise, expanded to include the acoustic, electronic and scientific meanings of noise: Noise: a) for living things, noise is unwanted and/or harmful sound. b) In engineering and electronics, noise is any unwanted disturbance within a useful frequency band, such as undesired electric waves in a transmission channel or device. c) In scientific measurements, noise is erratic, intermittent or statistically random oscillation.

Please wish me luck in my efforts to make the world quieter. A quieter world will be a better and healthier world for all.

*A-weighting adjusts unweighted sound measurements to reflect the frequencies heard in human speech.

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