Dangerous Decibels – Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

I came across a comic by Liam F Walsh published in New Yorker showing people acting as blind by using mobile devices and white canes to navigate around. The artist could also have added earbuds as they make people deaf by listening to their portable devices and being oblivious to the world around them.

Deaf third graders - top row with girls and bottom rows with boys - some wear body hearing aids.

In the picture above it may look like kids are wearing earbuds and listening to portable devices. They do listen to sounds, but not from those devices. Those kids are deaf and use hearing aids to help them better hear sounds through them. One of them is me (in middle wearing a pink jacket) and others are my classmates – the picture was taken when we just started third grade in late 1980s. Yes, we used to wear those ugly and bulky body hearing aids in past which we hated. Not to mention how much we were made fun of by hearing kids because of them. That was before hearing devices were reduced to smaller sizes that fit behind or completely inside ears and became more elegant and comfortable to use. But even now many hard of hearing and late deafened people still feel conscious about wearing them due to the stigma.

Nowadays I see more and more people walking with earbuds who look like deaf. Their devices often remind me of old body hearing aids, only they look more sophisticated. Sadly, those are not hearing devices that improve hearing at some degree, but portable players that are actually causing hearing loss, especially if volumes are set up on higher levels. Actually, constant exposure to loud noises is the leading cause of hearing loss.

The longer you listen to MP3 players at higher volumes, the more hearing you lose in a shorter period of time. Sounds at 85 decibels or below are considered safe. Loudness levels that are set up on many people’s portable players are greater than 85 decibels which are considered dangerous. Which means that if you listen via earbuds to a mobile device at high volumes long hours every day, you may gradually lose your hearing without realizing it.

To better understand decibel levels and what sounds are considered safe, the following are some examples: a whisper is usually measured at 30dB, normal conversations – at 50dB, busy traffic – at 75dB, a subway train – at 90dB, a gunshot blast – at 100 dB, a jet plane – at 140 dB. Normal conversations without shouting and in quieter places are safe. Noisy places are not safe – for these reasons, underground workers, people using guns, airplane workers use hear protection. Unfortunately, many army veterans do not use ear protection and are not immune to hearing loss that is the most prevalent disability in military. Many rock concert musicians also lose their hearing as they do not use ear protection.

Portable players are not the only culprits of hearing loss, but any loud places and things such as restaurants, rock concerts, underground trains, etc. When attending social events, I often find myself in places with blaring music and people shouting at each other that makes it hard even for sign language interpreters sometimes to help me in conversations if they happen to accompany me. It never ceases to amaze me why hearing people would want to try to have conversations while listening to loud music. I can even tell how loud music is without any hearing devices by feeling strong vibrations!

Contrary to common thoughts that hearing loss happens only to older people, now more and more younger people are knocking doctors’ offices. For example, 15.5% of 6-19 year olds in the US (5.2 million) have hearing loss due to noise exposure. Another study showed that hearing loss among teenagers had risen by about 31% in the past 10 years.

Hearing loss is irreversible. There are hearing aids and cochlear implants that can help some people hear better, but they do not cure hearing loss. Also, they are very expensive and need to be maintained and upgraded. Good hearing aids usually cost about $1,000 or more for one ear and have to be replaced every 5-7 years, and most health insurance companies in USA do not cover them. You would need to visit an audiologist to program your hearing aids and make ear molds which is not cheap either. Plus you have to spend money on batteries. For those with profound hearing loss, cochlear implants cost even more as they also involve a surgical procedure to implant the internal parts that would cost about $50,000 – $100,000 per one ear plus upgrades to external parts every 5-7 years that cost about $5,000 – $10,000 per ear – to say nothing about visiting an audiologist for mapping and spending additional money on batteries.

Not all deaf and hard of hearing people wear hearing devices for various reasons. Some of them have managed to live without them, especially those who were born deaf or were deafened at an young age and are part of signing Deaf community. Hearing devices do not replace the need for captioning/interpreting access – many hearing device users read captions or use interpreters. Even if hearing devices help deafened people to hear better, many of them also have to learn how to cope with hearing loss that makes them feel depressed, and it takes them about 5-7 years to finally seek help.

My hearing loss was caused by meningitis, not noise-induced. However, it has constantly reminded my family members about how important it is to protect their hearing and not to take it for granted. Since when my sister was young, my parents have made sure that she was not exposed to loud noises or listening to loud music. Fortunately, she has listened to them and still is careful not to do things that could damage her hearing.

How to protect your hearing? Try to avoid noisy places whenever possible or use ear protection if you have to spend your time there. Do not crank up volumes on your portable devices when listening to music. Earbuds and bluetooth devices may be fun to use, but if they are not used properly, they may be replaced with expensive hearing aids or cochlear implants.

For these reasons, the Health Department in NYC has launched an ad campaign to warn of the dangers of listening to loud headphones. The slogan of their ads is: “Hear today. Gone tomorrow. Turn down your music before you can’t hear it anymore.”

Two pictures with a left one showing an ear with an earbud and a right one showing an ear with a cochlear implant.

The picture on the left shows my ear with an earbud (which is not useful to me) – something that I see often in ears of many people listening to their mobile devices. If they do not take any precautions against their hearing loss, they may no longer be able to use those earbuds as they may become hard of hearing and use hearing aids or profoundly deaf like me in the picture on the right who wears a cochlear implant.

http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/video/earbuds-lead-hearing-loss-18679650
http://ipod.about.com/od/generalmaintenance/a/avoiding-ipod-hearing-loss.htm
http://ipod.about.com/gi/o.htm?zi=1/XJ&zTi=1&sdn=ipod&cdn=gadgets&tm=27&f=20&su=p284.13.342.ip_p504.6.342.ip_&tt=2&bt=6&bts=6&zu=http%3A//www.boston.com/news/health/articles/2009/05/18/ihuh/%3Fpage%3D1
http://mentalfloss.com/article/16867/not-silent-killer-noise-pollution