Kurt Evers, 46, of Montgomery Village, Md., started driving fire engines in the early 1980s, when firemen typically didn't use ear protection. By the late 1990s, he often couldn't hear his wife talking to him. In 2004, even with digital hearing aids, he was unable to pass National Fire Protection Association hearing standards.
Too many loud sirens over too many years had taken their toll: Evers was forced to retire.
Now co-owner of a fireplace company, he is among the 22 million Americans between 20 and 69 who have noise-induced hearing loss. And he never misses an opportunity to warn against its dangers.
Loud noises such as sirens damage the hair cells in our inner ear. These tiny structures convert sound waves into electrical energy. Our auditory nerve sends this energy to the brain, which perceives it as sound. Our bodies cannot replace damaged hair cells. Once they are gone, hearing declines—permanently.
Although hearing loss tends to increase as we age, young people are vulnerable, too. Doctors, parents and educators worry about portable music players and other noisy gadgets damaging hearing in children and young adults. Just how much depends on both loudness and time—the longer the exposure, the more likely the damage.
In addition, the louder the sound, the less time it takes to cause harm. Exposure to loud noise also can cause tinnitus, a continuous ringing, roaring, or clicking sound in the ears.
"Our goal is to make it second nature for people to use protective hearing techniques when they're exposed to loud noise, just like using sunscreen at the beach or wearing a helmet when you go biking," says James F. Battey, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).