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Eight Pairs of Earplugs in Four Noisy Settings: My Hearing Protection Experiment

By Kayleen Ring

Before my 2018 summer internship at Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) in New York City, I underestimated the importance of protecting my ears, often leaving myself at risk for damage from noise at concerts, sporting events, and other loud places. I took my typical hearing for granted until learning that hearing loss is largely caused by noise exposure and can negatively impact the brain function of young adults, even in its mildest forms. But I was also encouraged to discover noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is preventable. Earplugs in particular are a convenient, low-cost tool for hearing preservation.

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To improve my own hearing health and to create awareness about NIHL, I experimented with different types of earplugs in various loud settings. Expecting no more than a handful of foam options, I was excited to learn what an assortment of earplugs is available—each with different shapes, sizes, and features. Previously, my earplug experience had been limited to basic foam pairs to drown out my college roommates’ snoring!

I evaluated each personal earplug use experience with a 1 to 10 rating—10 being highest—for effectiveness, comfort, and ease of use. The Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) metric indicates how much noise is blocked out by the pair of earplugs.

Setting: Concerts

Just one loud concert (decibel levels up to 120 dB) can cause permanent damage to your ears. I tested earplugs at two musical events.

1. Eargasm High Fidelity Ear Plugs

  • NRR: 16 dB

  • Effectiveness: 10

  • Comfort: 10

  • Ease of Use: 10

At first, I worried wearing earplugs at a performance by one of my favorite artists would negatively affect my concert experience, but this pair allowed me to hear and enjoy the music perfectly at a reduced volume. They were so comfortable I forgot they were in my ears! They were easy to remove using the pull tab and I  also liked the carrying case they come in, because it fits in my small bag and keeps the earplugs hygienic for reuse.

2. Moldex Pocket Pak Squeeze

  • NRR: 27 dB

  • Effectiveness: 8

  • Comfort: 9

  • Ease of Use: 9

The triple-flange design, neck cord, and carrying case provided a secure earplug experience at an even louder concert where sound levels spiked to 120 dB. Unprotected exposure to noise at this level, which is equivalent to that of ambulance sirens or thunderclaps, can damage hearing in seconds. Fortunately, the ridged edges on the earplugs I used made inserting them far easier and faster than foam earplugs that need to be shaped prior to use.

Setting: Group Fitness

At a popular group fitness class, I recorded sound decibel levels and the results showed extremely loud and dangerous levels of noise. The average was 91 dB and the max was 119 dB over the one-hour class period. For a healthier workout, I wore earplugs.

3. Mack’s Blackout Foam Earplugs

  • NRR: 32 dB

  • Effectiveness: 9

  • Comfort: 10

  • Ease of Use: 9

These were excellent because I was able to hear the music and the trainers’ instructions, just at a lower volume. Less distracted by the loud music than usual, I was able to focus more carefully on my workout and form. They fit snugly and stayed in place over the course of the 60-minute, high-intensity session.

4. EarPeace “HD” High Fidelity Earplugs

  • NRR: 19 dB

  • Effectiveness: 10

  • Comfort: 10

  • Ease of Use: 8

I was particularly impressed that this pair included three set of filters offering different levels of protection. I used the highest decibel filter, 19 dB, and found the class music was still clear and enjoyable. My only challenge was properly inserting the very small filters.

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Setting: Restaurants

When I didn’t intern at HHF this summer, I worked at a restaurant on Long Island, New York, that was always busy, sometimes bursting with chatty customers waiting three hours for service. Beyond the crowds, the restaurant had live musical performances that amplified an already loud environment. This is dangerous for workers and patrons alike. Here, the earplugs I wore still allowed me to hear clearly and hold a conversation.

5. Etymotic ER20XS High-Fidelity Earplugs (NRR: 13 dB)

  • NRR: 13 dB

  • Effectiveness: 8

  • Comfort: 8

  • Ease of Use: 9

The Etymotic earplugs had the positive qualities of the typical high-fidelity earplugs and included three interchangeable eartips, a hygenic carrying case, and a neck cord, providing a secure and effective earplug experience.

6. EarPeace “S”High Fidelity Earplugs

  • NRR: 19 dB

  • Overall Effectiveness: 10

  • Comfort: 10

  • Ease of Use: 10

This pair was great. They reduced the noise perfectly so it was at a comfortable yet still audible volume. The dual-flange design and soft silicone material made the earplugs fit well, were comfortable and easy to use.

Setting: New York City Subway

Decibel levels on the subway platforms trains are extremely high and can cause hearing damage, especially for frequent riders and employees. For my tests, I sat inside the 34th St-Penn Station 1/2/3 subway station across the street from the HHF office, where I was greeted by screeching trains, talkative tourists, and a steel drums player.

7. Moldex Sparkplugs

  • NRR: 33 dB

  • Overall Effectiveness: 9

  • Comfort: 10

  • Ease of Use: 9

The Sparkplugs blocked out noise while allowing me to hear conversations and train announcements. They were easy to mold into my ears, allowing for optimal noise reduction. The pattern on the earplugs is colorful and fun, making them appealing for children, and easily locatable in your bag.

8. Alpine Plug & Go

  • NRR: 30 dB

  • Overall Effectiveness: 8

  • Comfort: 8

  • Ease of Use: 8

These foam earplugs reduced volume but the noise was muffled. Consequently, these would be a great option for more sedentary activities, like sleeping and flying, where you are aiming to block out all noise. The foam was comfortable and fit snugly in my ears, but was challenging to mold.

The reviews and ratings here are based on my individual experiences and are not intended to encourage or discourage anyone’s use of specific earplugs. High ratings are not product endorsements. As someone newly informed about the dangers of noise, it is my hope my summer intern experiment for HHF will raise awareness and inspire others to investigate hearing protection that best meets their needs.

Kayleen Ring is a former marketing and communications intern at HHF. She studies marketing in the honors program at Providence College in Rhode Island.

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A Fast Track to Hearing Damage

By Andrew J. Guralnick

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Millions of commuters using the New York City subway system know it can be noisy, but just how loud is it? As a 2018 Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) intern, I set out to measure the danger that the NYC Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) subway system presents to riders and employees.

I found that the system significantly breaches the threshold of what is safe for our ears. To protect hearing, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization recommend an average exposure limit of 70 decibels (dB) over the course of 24 hours. But what we measured exceeds that limit: Our samples show the average noise levels on all subway platforms and on all subway rides (inside subway trains) is between 72.5 and 76.5 dB and between 74.1 and 75.8 dB, respectively. And, with maximum readings actually as high as 119 dB on platforms and 120 dB on rides—based on actual recorded data within the sample—the NYC subway is likely an auditory minefield. (See hhf.org/subway for full data.)

Using our data’s sample averages, I determined ranges as to what the actual averages are on all subway platforms and rides through the MTA system. Based on the data, we are 99 confident about our results.

Collecting and Analyzing

From January to August 2018, three data collectors used Decibel Meter Pro, a smartphone app on iPhones and an iPad to collect 120 samples from platforms and rides. All 60 platform samples were equally represented at five minutes each. The 60 ride samples were assigned random recording lengths from 10 to 30 minutes. Samples on Saturday and Sunday or between 11 p.m. and 4:45 a.m. on any day were excluded. Random sampling was utilized as much as possible to help ensure generalizability on behalf of all platforms and rides.

The analysis examined potential harm to hearing from loud noises on subway platforms and loud noises during subway rides. For platform noise, the main variable is the number of trains that pass; for subway ride noise, the main variable is the number of local stations the train passes. We also investigated the number of seconds the subway noise level reached 75 dB or higher.

When measuring subway rides, we noted train travels between Manhattan and another borough or vice versa; whether a train runs above ground; whether the sample was collected during rush hour; and whether a local train ever becomes an express train, with fewer stops.

The statistical method of multiple regression was used to predict dangerous noise exposure on both platforms and rides. We can predict that each train that enters or leaves a platform will expose a rider’s ears to 16.53 seconds of noise at 75 dB or higher. For example, if a rider waits at a platform where two trains come and go before their train arrives, that would be a predicted exposure of 82.65 additional seconds of noise at 75 dB or higher.

We can also predict that each subway stop that is passed will expose a rider’s ears to 36.06 seconds of noise of 75 dB or higher. For example, if a rider passes 10 local train stops on their trip, the predicted exposure of noise at 75 dB or higher is 360.60 additional seconds—or 6.01 additional minutes.

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Cumulative Effect

HHF’s recommendation for commuters, MTA staff, and platform retailers such as newsstand operators is simple: Wear ear protection. MTA staff and platform retailers are at elevated risk given the hours they spend underground and on the trains. The tendency for many commuters to block noise by raising the volume of their headphones is not a helpful approach and could in fact damage hearing even more.

The subway is merely only one of many sources of daily noise. “Noise-induced hearing loss can result from a single, sudden noise event and from constant exposure to loud noises that has a cumulative effect (not unlike sun exposure) and can lead to related negative health effects when unknown and untreated,” says Lauren McGrath, HHF’s marketing manager.

The MTA appears aware of the issue of subway noise. The newly built Second Avenue subway line uses effective noise-reduction measures such as “low vibration tracks and sound absorbing panels.” We hope the MTA will continue to use these quieter, low vibration tracks when making subway and station upgrades, especially since they are more cost-effective than traditional wooden tracks.

2018 HHF intern Andrew J. Guralnick is pursuing a master’s in public administration at Baruch College in New York City.

Receive updates on life-changing hearing research and resources by subscribing to HHF's free quarterly magazine and e-newsletter.

 
 
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Let’s Make Noise Safer

By Vicky Chan

April 25 is International Noise Awareness Day, an annual, vital reminder to take a stand against noise exposure and to spread awareness about the underestimated threat of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Seemingly harmless rhythms, roars, and blasts heard daily from music, trains, and machinery are, in fact, among the top offenders of NIHL.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) progressively occurs after chronic exposure to loud sounds. The frequency and intensity of the sound level, measured in decibels (dB), increases the risk of NIHL. Gradual hearing loss can result from prolonged contact with noise levels of 85 dB or greater, such as heavy city traffic. Noises of 110 dB or more, like construction (110 dB), an ambulance (120dB), or the pop of firecrackers (140-165 dB) can damage one’s hearing in a minute’s time.

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NIHL is the only type of hearing loss that is completely preventable, yet billions of individuals endanger themselves daily. Over 1.1 billion young adults ages 12 to 35—an age group that frequently uses headphones to listen to music—are at risk. Already, an estimated 12.5% of young people ages of 6 to 19 have hearing loss as a result of using earbuds or headphones at a high volume. A device playing at maximum volume (105 dB) is dangerous, so exposure to sounds at 100 dB for more than 15 minutes is highly discouraged.

Most major cities around the world have transit systems that put commuters in contact with sounds at 110 dB. BBC News found that London’s transit systems can get as loud as 110 dB, which is louder than a nearby helicopter taking off. The sound levels of some stations exceed the threshold for which occupational hearing protection is legally required. New York City has one of the largest and oldest subway systems in the world where 91% of commuters exceed the recommended levels of noise exposure annually. In a study on Toronto’s subway system, 20% of intermittent bursts of impulse noises were greater than 114 dB.

People who work in certain fields are more vulnerable to NIHL than others. Professional musicians, for instance, are almost four times as likely to develop NIHL than the general public. Military personnel, who are in extremely close proximity to gunfire and blasts, are more likely to return home from combat with hearing loss and/or tinnitus than any other type of injury. And airport ground staff are surrounded by high-frequency aircraft noises at 140 dB. In all of these professions, the hazard of NIHL can be significantly mitigated with hearing protection.

NIHL is permanent. Increased exposure to excess noise destroys the sensory cells in the inner ears (hair cells), which decreases hearing capacity and leads to hearing loss. Once damaged, the sensory cells cannot be restored. To find a solution, Hearing Health Foundation’s (HHF) Hearing Restoration Project (HRP) conducts groundbreaking research on inner ear hair cell regeneration in hopes of discovering a life-changing cure.

Nearly three-quarters of those who are exposed to loud noises rarely or never use hearing protection. It is our dream that someday, NIHL will be reversible as a result of the HRP. Until then, to make noise safer, HHF advises protection by remembering to Block, Walk, and Turn. Block out noises by wearing earplugs or protective earmuffs. Walk away or limit exposure to high-levels of noises. Turn down the volume of electronic devices.

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