It’s estimated that 10 million Americans suffer with noise-induced hearing loss. In fact, noise is one of the most common occupational hazards today, with as many as 30 million Americans being exposed to harmful noise levels at work.
We register sound through little hairs that vibrate in our inner ears in response to different noises. When these hairs are exposed to a sudden burst of very loud noise or to a steady stream of fairly loud noise, they can get damaged, resulting in hearing loss.
Sound pressure is measured in decibels (dB). Here are some everyday sounds and their average decibel rankings:
Sound Decibels (db)
Very faint, rustling leaves 5
Typical speech 60
Washing machine 75
Busy city traffic 85
Hair dryer 90
Leaf blower, rock concert, chainsaw 110
Ambulance, jack hammer 120
Jet plane from 100 feet 130
Fireworks, gunshot 140
12-gauge shotgun 165
How loud is too loud?
Steady exposure to noise that reaches 85 dB can produce hearing loss. A one-time exposure to very loud noises like a gunshot at 140 dB can also cause hearing loss. Listening to a discman or mp3 player at a standard volume level of 5 for 15 minutes a day is enough to cause permanent damage.
Since it’s not practical to walk around with a meter that allows you to measure dB, a good rule of thumb is that if you have to raise your voice in order to be heard by a person who is a couple of feet away, the noise level is considered hazardous.
Another practical measure is to carefully observe for ringing in your ears or if sounds feel flat or dull after leaving a noisy environment. If either of these conditions are present, you were probably exposed to a hazardous level of noise.
If you are exposed to potentially harmful noises at work or home, I recommend that you strongly consider using expandable or pre-molded earplugs. You can find them at almost any pharmacy.
An alternative is to use earmuffs, although they might not provide the same level of protection as earplugs that sit snug in your external ear canal.
If you have children who like to listen to music on their mp3 players or in their cars, please share this article with them so that they’re aware of how their choices today may affect them in the future.