Noise-canceling technology may be harming our ears

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by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report from the New Zealand radio station RNZ reports on why noise-canceling technology may be doing more harm than good for our ears. That information comes from David McAlpine, academic director at Australia’s Macquarie University Hearing in Sydney. 

McAlpine explains that noise-canceling technology, and even earplug use, can damage hearing in the brain as sound is processed. My understanding is that the brain needs a certain amount of sound for brain pathways to function normally. If it’s too quiet, the brain essentially “turns up” the volume of whatever sound comes in, potentially causing tinnitus. McAlpine mentions research into this topic, and I emailed him to ask for those citations so I can learn more about it.

Rather than needing noise-canceling headphones or earbuds, I think it’s better to make quieter environments. Are architects and interior designers doing this?

“We don’t spend the money and we know that architecture always gets waylaid and ergonomic aural architecture gets waylaid by cost. So the first thing to go on the budget line is the sound environment and the exploration and damping of noise is the first thing to go in the budget,” he said. The story says “oral,” but McAlpine clearly meant the ears and not the mouth!

Sound can be blocked, contained, reflected or absorbed, but the best way to reduce sound pressure levels is to decrease production of sound at the source. We can’t do that for environmental noise pollution, such as transportation noise — that’s the responsibility of local, state and national governments — but we can do something for noise that we can control. The easiest and cheapest way to reduce ambient noise levels costs absolutely nothing: Turn down the volume of amplified sound. Do this on personal listening devices or for background music turned up to rock concert levels in a restaurant, retail store or mall.

A quieter world will be a better and healthier world for all.

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