Growing VolumeIn the United States, about 30 million workers are exposed to hazardous sound levels on the job, according to NIOSH. Industries having a high number of workers exposed to loud sounds include construction, agriculture, mining, manufacturing, utilities, transportation, and the military.”Even disregarding other people’s noise, there are any number of household tools and appliances that can produce harmful sound levels in the comfort of one’s own home. According to the fact sheet “Noise in the Home” produced by the League for the Hard of Hearing, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, and hair dryers can all reach or exceed 90 dBA.Our modern industrialized society has spawned ubiquitous entertainment and sports industries with their boom boxes, “personal stereos” (Gap Kids now even offers a jacket with a built-in radio and speakers conveniently attached right in the hood), surround-sound movie theaters, loud TV commercials, and even louder commercials at sports stadiums crammed full of thousands of noisy fans. In drag racing, a growing international sport, a German team of audio engineers set an earsplitting record of 177 dB–sound pressure level in 2002. Popular “boom cars” equipped with powerful stereo systems that are usually played with the volume and bass turned up abnormally high and the car windows rolled down can hit 140–150 dBA. Listening to music at a level of 150 dBA would be like standing next to a Boeing 747 airplane with its engines at full throttle, according to statistics provided by Noise Free America, an anti-noise advocacy group.Even the countryside is not immune to the impact of noise pollution. According to the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health in Cooperstown, a staggering 75% of farmworkers have some kind of hearing problem, largely the result of long-term exposure to loud equipment.Scary Sound Effects
Numerous scientific studies over the years have confirmed that exposure to certain levels of sound can damage hearing. Prolonged exposure can actually change the structure of the hair cells in the inner ear, resulting in hearing loss. It can also cause tinnitus, a ringing, roaring, buzzing, or clicking in the ears. The American Tinnitus Association estimates that 12 million Americans suffer from this condition, with at least 1 million experiencing it to the extent that it interferes with their daily activities.NIOSH studies from the mid to late 1990s show that 90% of coal miners have hearing impairment by age 52—compared to 9% of the general population—and 70% of male metal/nonmetal miners will experience hearing impairment by age 60 (Stephenson notes that from adolescence onward, females tend to have better hearing than males). Neitzel says nearly half of all construction workers have some degree of hearing loss. “NIOSH research also reveals that by age twenty-five, the average carpenter’s hearing is equivalent to an otherwise healthy fifty-year-old male who hasn’t been exposed to noise,” he says.“Noise has an insidious effect in that the more exposure a person has to noise, the more the hearing loss will continue to grow,” says Josara Wallber, disabilities services liaison for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York. “Hearing loss is irreversible. Once hearing is lost, it’s lost forever.”William Luxford, medical director of the House Ear Clinic of St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles, points out one piece of good news: “It’s true that continuous noise exposure will lead to the continuation of hearing loss, but as soon as the exposure is stopped, the hearing loss stops. So a change in environment can improve a person’s hearing health.”For many young people, changing their environment and their behavior would be a wise and healthy move. That’s because audiologists are fitting more and more of them with hearing aids, says Rachel Cruz, a research associate at the House Ear Clinic. She says audiologists are blaming this disturbing development on youth’s penchant for listening to loud music, especially with the use of headphones.Research is catching up with this anecdotal evidence.