Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is on the rise again amongst the members of Gen-Z. In the latter half of the 20th century, regulations were put in place to ensure that employers provided safe work environments and provided hearing protection for those who worked around noise. This situation led to a decrease in NIHL by the early 2000s, but now we are finding that Gen-Z actually has more hearing loss than millennials, despite being the younger generation.
When we think about the kind of noise that causes hearing loss, we often think of loud motorcycles, rock concerts, or firearms. While all of these things do certainly have the potential to cause hearing loss, it doesn’t take a catastrophically loud sound to do damage to our hearing.
Loudness and Duration
There are two factors that determine whether sound will cause NIHL: loudness and duration. A very loud sound may cause hearing loss immediately, but some sounds that we might not imagine were dangerous can induce hearing loss if we are exposed to them for a long enough time.
An average sound level of 85 dBA (decibels A-weighted) can cause hearing loss after about 8 hours of exposure. That’s about the amount of noise created by city traffic, a lawn mower, a hair dryer, or a kitchen blender. While we don’t normally run a hair dryer or kitchen blender for 8 hours straight, remember that we’re talking about an average level. It may be that as you move through your day, you might spend plenty of time surrounded by loud sounds or listening to headphones, which can add up quickly.
Safe Times of Exposure
Because sound behaves logarithmically, it can be tricky to understand the way we assign numeric values to sound levels. Suffice it to say, a small increase in dBA makes a big difference. For every additional 3 dBA of noise, the safe time of exposure is cut in half.
- 85 dBA – 8 hours – city traffic, lawnmower, chamber music
- 88 dBA – 4 hours
- 91 dBA – 2 hours – motorcycle, truck
- 94 dBA – 1 hour – earbuds at 5/10
- 97 dBA – ½ hour
- 100 dBA – 15 minutes – subway train, average high school dance
Sound doesn’t become painful until it reaches 125 dBA, at which point it causes hearing loss in about 3 seconds.
Sound Hazards in the Home
Modern life is a busy, noisy place. Many of the devices that help us use our time more efficiently can also be a disaster for our hearing. Laundry machines, power tools, lawn & garden tools, dishwashers and other kitchen appliances—it all adds up. Some of these we use for short durations, and others we may be able to avoid while they’re running. Still others may require the use of hearing protection to use safely.
Protect Yourself from NIHL
If you’re unsure about an environment, you can download an SPL (sound pressure level) meter app for your phone. These meters may not be truly accurate since they rely on the microphone in your smartphone, and there are also different ways of measuring decibels, so be sure that your meter can be switched to read in dBA. They may be a helpful rough guide.
If you’re on the fence about whether you’re exposed to unsafe sound levels over the course of a day, it’s best to use hearing protection. While you do not want to over-protect your ears, which can cause its own problems, there are many options for quality over-the-counter earplugs. For those who enjoy music or need to wear their earplugs for long stretches of time, custom-molded earplugs are the best option. They are comfortable for long periods of wear, and provide a near-perfect representation of the frequency spectrum. You hear exactly what’s in the environment, just a little quieter.
Active noise-canceling headphones may be a good option for those who listen to lots of media content at work or while commuting. They can also be used to reduce the impact of background noise even without playing content through them. They tend to be effective at reducing the lower frequencies of continuous noise—like the hum inside an airplane cabin—but are not a direct replacement for hearing protection.