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December 30, 2003

Now hear this: Loud noise is bad for your ears

From: Arizona Republic, AZ - Dec 30, 2003

Shannon Mullen
Asbury Park (N.J.) Press

These days, it's not just factory workers and heavy equipment operators who have to worry about excessive noise.

The din of daily life, audiologists contend, is getting louder. There's more traffic on the road, more airplanes flying overhead, more noisy appliances and electronic gadgets in our homes, more music piped into our ears, more landscaping crews roaring through our neighborhoods.

And many of these ordinary sounds - including some particularly piercing children's toys - are loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss.

More than 30 million Americans are exposed to hazardous sound levels on a regular basis, often without realizing it, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

In 2000, a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 5 million 6- to 19-year-olds have impaired hearing directly related to noise.

"We have become a noisy society and that noise is slowly robbing us of our hearing," warns audiologist Tina Mullins of the American Speech-Hearing Association, a Rockville, Md., organization that certifies audiologists and speech pathologists.

The word "noise" has a Latin root - nausea. Simply put, noise is unwanted sound, which means there's some subjectivity involved, as any parent with a child in a garage band can attest.

As cultural historian Hillel Schwartz noted in a 1995 academic paper, "Noise and Silence: The Soundscape and Spirituality," life has always been noisy. Julius Caesar banned chariots from thundering across Rome's cobbled streets late at night, Schwartz writes, and the clanging of church bells was a chronic noise issue throughout Europe until regulations were imposed in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Whether background noise has increased is hard to say, but it has certainly changed. We are no longer subjected to the incessant hammering of blacksmiths at their anvils, the flaying of horses, the yammering of street vendors, public tortures and the like, Schwartz observes. But new noises have taken their place: snowblowers, personal watercraft, cellphones, honking horns, Hokey-Pokey Elmo.

Audiologist Roberta Aungst's patients include several Atlantic City casino employees who hear sirens, bells and buzzers all day.

"It's incredibly noisy," Aungst says of the casino floor.

Environmentalists call unwanted noise "aural litter," and unless you live deep in the woods, it's almost impossible to avoid. The grass-roots Noise Pollution Clearinghouse ( thinks the problem has gotten out of hand. Its members are pushing for tougher regulations on such noisemakers as gas-powered lawn equipment and "alarmingly useless" car alarms.

Experts say sounds louder than 80 decibels - a coffee grinder is 84 to 95 decibels, the NPC says, while a lawn mower can range from 88 to 94 - can damage sensitive hair cells in the soft tissue of the inner ear, which relays sounds waves to the brain.

"Sometimes it takes just one exposure," says audiologist Sandra Fields Kuhn.

Once damaged, those hair cells don't recover, though if enough healthy cells remain, a person exposed to a firearm discharge at close range, for example, might experience only a temporary hearing loss.

The American Speech-Hearing Association advises parents to inspect toys for excessive noise just as they would for choking hazards. The group says some electronic toys can emit sounds of 90 decibels or more. When held directly to the ear, the noise level can register as high as 120 decibels - the equivalent of a jet airplane at take-off.

The first sign of noise-induced hearing loss, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, is the inability to hear high-pitched sounds, such as some conversational voices or small children or the singing of birds. Ringing in the ears, a condition called tinnitus, is often a precursor to permanent hearing loss.

Exposure to excessive noise can have other health consequences, audiologists say. Noise increases blood pressure, accelerates breathing, disturbs digestion, intensifies the effects of drugs and alcohol and disrupts sleep, even after the noise stops. Noise also can cause fatigue, irritability and upset stomach or ulcers.

Kuhn has noticed that more of her patients are people in their 50s and 60s who are losing their hearing due to noise, as opposed to age. Some have worked in noisy environments or were exposed to loud noises in the military, but others simply may have attended too many raucous rock concerts in their youth.

Fortunately, thanks to technological advances, today's hearing aids work better and are less obtrusive, making them more acceptable to younger patients.

Audiologists say the best defense against noise-induced hearing loss is to limit your exposure to loud sounds. When they can't be avoided, use disposable earplugs. They can quiet up to 25 decibels of sound, which can mean the difference between damaging noise and a tolerable din.

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