DECIBEL LEVELS


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WHAT IS A DECIBEL?

A decibel (dB) is a unit of measurement for sound. A-weighted decibels, abbreviated dBA, are an expression of the relative loudness of sounds in air as perceived by our ears.


SAFE & UNSAFE DECIBELS

The National Institute of Occupational Safety (NIOSH) states that for a 115 decibel (dB) sound, the exposure limit is just 28 seconds.

Exposure to noise louder than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) safe noise level of 70 dB over 24 hours will damage hearing.

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MEASUREMENT

An abundance decibel-reading apps for smartphones make it easy to learn how much noise is in the world around us. Most apps use the smartphone’s microphone to give a reading of the decibel level.

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As with a professional-grade meter, most phone apps can also show how the noise fluctuates over time, in real time, and provide numerical reference points that users can compare to their own sound levels. Some apps even let you geo-tag the decibel level to a specific location, like your favorite restaurant or your workplace.

HHF used Decibel Meter Pro to record the noise levels of hundreds of New York City subways. The 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. 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 subway system is an auditory minefield.

NOISE POLLUTION


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When we hear the word pollution, our minds default to oil spills, smoke pushing out from factory chimneys, cars in morning traffic, or pesticides. All of these images are accurate and deserve our attention, and we should also acknowledge another pollutant that disturbs the very rhythm of life: noise.  

Noise pollution is harmful or annoying levels of noise that disrupt quality of life. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls the problem an underestimated threat. Its impacts to humans and other living things remain underestimated.

Mimi Hearing Technologies—with whom HHF teams up with for World Hearing Day annually—along with the WHO and Norwegian research organization Sintef conducted a study to quantify the risk of noise pollution. The results showed on average, a person living in the world’s loudest cities has hearing loss equivalent to that of someone 10-20 years older. Researchers also calculated a 64% correlation between hearing loss and noise pollution, The Guardian reports.

All of our systems work under the influence of rhythm, the arrangement of sound as it moves through time. Airplanes, electronics, traffic, construction, sirens, trains, poor building acoustics, and other sources of loud noise contribute to drowning out life’s natural rhythm.

As a society, we have become accustomed to a world with a constant buzz and general loudness, but at what cost? We know that noise can cause hearing loss, tinnitus, and related conditions. Left untreated, these conditions increase the risk of depression, cognitive decline, dementia, cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, stroke, and fatigue.

Even wildlife has been profoundly affected by the constant humming of this planet. Animals rely heavily on the ability to hear for survival; to hunt, mate and flee danger requires sensitivity to sound, sound that is becoming harder for wildlife to distinguish.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported in 2018 that noise pollution causes chronic stress to birds, the physiological symptoms of which are comparable to a human suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

TAKE ACTION


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Let’s turn up the quiet. It’s too noisy to suffer in silence, but we don’t have to suffer silently, either. The time to speak up is now. We need to protect our hearing. We need to request—even demand—that unnecessary noise in all settings, both indoors and outdoors, be limited to safe, tolerable levels, no more than the EPA or OSHA thresholds.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires “reasonable accommodations” for those with disabilities in these public places, such as stores, malls, offices, banks, museums, gyms, and restaurants. Individuals with hearing loss, tinnitus, or hyperacusis have a right to expect it to be quiet enough not to hurt their ears or to interfere with communication. The easiest accommodation—which is free—is simply turning down the volume of the amplified sound. Other accommodations may include the addition of sound-absorbing materials or other modifications.

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Modifications that would “fundamentally alter” the experience of most participants are not required. Some places are inherently noisy—where loudness is an inseparable part of the experience, such as at a rock concert or sports event—and it may not be possible to make the event quieter, but earplugs could be made available.

It’s hard to regulate individual behavior. People have the right to listen to loud music. We can educate leaders and lawmakers about the noise problem, so they can develop laws and regulations to protect our hearing.

The no-indoor-smoking movement may be the model to follow. In the U.S. we enjoy a largely smoke-free environment. We have a similar right to a quiet environment.

For outdoor noise, look up the noise ordinances where you live and learn whom to call when there is a violation. Civilian complaints will make enforcement authorities and elected officials will raise awareness of noise problems and may activate change. 

Source: Daniel Fink, M.D., and Bryan Pollard. Content is adapted from “Turn Up the Quiet” which appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Hearing Health.