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Hearing Loss

How Loud Is Too Loud?

Protect Your Hearing

It's A Noisy Planet, Protect Their Hearing. A Program of the National Institute of Health

Know which noises can cause damage. Protect your hearing by lowering the volume, moving away from the noise, or wearing hearing protectors, such as earplugs or earmuffs. Sponsored by the NIDCD, It's a Noisy Planet. Protect Their Hearing® aims to raise awareness among youth ages 8-12, their parents, and health professionals and educators about the causes and prevention of noise-induced hearing loss.

Decibel Chart

Decibel Chart
Danger Levels Decibels Sound Source
  150 Firecracker
  120 Ambulance Siren
110 Decibels
Regular exposure of more than 1 minute risks permanent hearing loss
110 Chain saw, rock concert
  105 Personal stereo system at maximum level
100 Decibels
Limit your exposure to noises at or above 100 decibels to less than 15 minutes
100 Wood shop, snowmobile
  95 Motorcycle
  90 Power mower
85 Decibels
Prolonged exposure to any noise at or above 85 decibels can cause gradual hearing loss
85 Heavy city traffic
  60 Normal conversation
  40 Refrigerator humming
  30 Whispered voice

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The High Cost of Noise Exposure

Kurt Evers of Montgomery Village, Maryland, 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 approximately 15 percent of Americans (26 million people) between the ages of 20 and 69 who have high frequency hearing loss due to exposure to noise at work or during leisure activities, according to NIDCD estimates. 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).

Spring 2015 Issue: Volume 10 Number 1 Page 12