When–and how–to protect your hearing

Photo credit: Kindel Media from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The New York Times’ Wirecutter provides sound advice about protecting your hearing, citing updated information from the CDC about safe noise levels.

As the Times’ resident noise expert, staff writer Lauren Dragan, writes:

If you’re wondering how loud is too loud, the CDC puts it this way: Normal conversation is around 60 decibels, while a motorcycle engine running is about 95 dB. And being exposed to anything louder than 70 dB (such as at a concert or sporting event) for a prolonged period of time could damage your hearing.

She goes on to recommend noise-cancelling headphones, earplugs, and even ear muffs for infants and children.

We’re glad to see public health authorities finally providing accurate information about dangerous noise levels to the public.

Until last summer, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders still had on its webpage about noise-induced hearing loss this entirely inaccurate statement: “Know which noises can cause damage (those at or above 85 dBA).” From at least 2014 to 2019, the NIDCD webpage used unweighted decibels (dB). A-weighting adjusts the sound measurement to approximate the frequencies heard in human speech. There is no easy formulas to convert dB to dBA, but my measurements of common noise exposures have found that dBA tend to measure 5-7 dB less than dB. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but the decibel scale is logarithmic, so a 3 dB increase in sound pressure measurements indicates a doubling of sound energy.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association also persists in using the dangerous 85 dB level, derived from occupational noise exposure recommendations, in its online information, stating “[s]ounds over 85 dBa can damage your hearing faster. The safe listening time is cut in half for every 3-dB rise in noise levels over 85 dBA.”

That’s just wrong, as I wrote five years ago.

How loud is too loud? We like to say, “if it sounds loud, it’s too loud. Turn down the volume, leave the noise environment, or use hearing protection.”

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