by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition
On December 7, the World Health Organization will sponsor a webinar about World Hearing Day 2023. Each year WHO selects a theme for World Hearing Day, which occurs on March 3 every year. This year’s theme is “Ear and hearing care for all! Let’s make it a reality.”
I won’t be able to attend the WHO webinar because I will be presenting two papers at the Acoustical Society of America meeting in Nashville that day. One of the papers is about my main noise interest, preventing auditory damage, not waiting until it has already occurred and then trying to treat it. Auditory damage includes noise-induced hearing loss, but also tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and hyperacusis (a sensitivity to loud noise, which may be perceived as painful). Because the exact noise exposure levels causing tinnitus and hyperacusis are not known, I focus on hearing loss.
I prepared what the ASA calls a “lay language paper” about that presentation.
My main point is that the safe noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss isn’t the occupational 85 dBA* noise exposure level. It’s probably not even the Environmental Protection Agency’s calculated 70 decibel level for a day. The EPA adjusted the occupational recommended exposure level for additional time exposure–24 hours a day instead of 8 hours at work, 365 days a year instead of 240 days at work–but didn’t adjust the 40-year occupational exposure level for lifetime exposure. Before COVID, life expectancy in the U.S. and most of the industrialized world was approaching or exceeding 80 years. The additional years of noise exposure mean that the safe noise exposure level for the public has to be lower than 70 decibels average for a day.
Also, in my second presentation on December 7, I note that the occupational noise exposure calculations assume workers have quiet when not at work, something no longer true. Because of that, the occupational noise exposure level on which the EPA safe noise level is based has to be recalculated downwards to prevent occupational noise exposure. My analysis suggests the actual safe noise level for the public may be only 55 decibels. That’s pretty quiet.
We may not be able to achieve 55 decibels in modern life, but I think knowing what the actual safe noise exposure level is will encourage people to advocate for quiet.
A quieter world will be a happier and healthier place for all.
*A-weighting adjusts unweighted sound measurements for the frequencies heard in human speech. Since the inability to hear speech is the compensable workplace injury from noise, A-weighting is used when discussing occupational noise exposures.