Undercover Noise Cop

By Kathi Mestayer

New Year, New You? If you’re planning to hit the gym as part of a New Year’s resolution, don’t forget that being healthy includes protecting your hearing. Look for “No Pain, No Gain?” this January in Hearing Health magazine.

To write my story, I had to do some sleuthing. I’ve been doing undercover noise data collection for a few months. My instruments range from two virtually invisible smartphone apps (SoundMeter+ and AudioTools) to a very visible, unwieldy, professional sound meter. Everyone can see it, but nobody knows what it is.

Picture me in my bathing suit (be kind), walking around a huge, cavernous, swimming pool area at a community recreation center. I’m cradling the professional sound meter like a baby in my arms, its 3-inch-diameter sponge microphone cover sticking out like a huge Tootsie Roll. In my other hand is my smartphone, its decibel app meter flying back and forth at a rate so fast I can barely see it.  

The folks in the aquatics class at my end of the pool are working out, following the instructor’s movements. The boom box is barely audible due to the extremely resonant sound bouncing off of the glass and steel.

The teacher, who knows me from classes I’ve taken, gives me a “what on earth are you doing?” look, and then quickly goes back to her teaching. The lifeguard, on the other hand, is taking the liberty of really staring at me. I’m feeling pretty conspicuous.  

I take a few readings with both meters, and get a range of 74 to 78 dBA (the unit dBA measures sound levels as perceived by humans). Then, I skulk along the side of the pool to the aquatics boom box, to see how much it is adding to the din. It adds about 4 dBA, which is a significant jump in decibel terms.

As I note in my story on noisy gyms (coming up in the Winter 2014 issue of Hearing Health, out in January):

“Remember that decibel increases are magnified: 80 dBA is twice as loud as 77 dBA—the sound energy doubles with each 3 dBA increase. So while 4 dBA doesn’t seem like much on a linear scale, it’s a big difference in dBA terms.”

On my way out, I slink over to the lifeguard and tell her what I’m doing. She doesn’t ask what readings I’m getting but luckily for her, it’s within Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) limits for her as a worker. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to worry about hearing damage, at least at this sound level.


Hearing Health magazine staff writer Kathi Mestayer serves on advisory boards for the Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the Greater Richmond, Va., chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America.

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