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Noise and Hearing Loss

Noise is difficult to define!

Basically, noise is unwanted sound. It is a pollutant and a hazard to human health and hearing. In fact, it has been described as the most pervasive pollutant in America.  Unfortunately, public awareness of the hazardous effects of noise is low - especially noise considered to be non-occupational. To this end, the fourth Wednesday in April has been declared International Noise Awareness Day (INAD). As part of International Noise Awareness Day, a "Quiet Diet" is encouraged and is launched by observing 60 seconds of no noise from 2:15 to 2:16 PM. More than 30 million Americans are exposed to hazardous sound levels on a regular basis. Of the 28 million Americans who have some degree of hearing loss, over one-third have been affected, at least in part, by noise. Visit the "Wise Ears" Web site for more information on noise-induced hearing loss.

Damage to the Inner Ear

Your ear receives sound waves and sends them through a delicately balanced system to the brain. Both the amount of noise and the length of time you are exposed to the noise determine its ability to damage your hearing. Noise levels are measured in decibels (dB).  Sounds louder than 80 decibels are considered potentially hazardous. The noise chart below gives an idea of average decibel levels for everyday sounds around you.


        150 dB = rock music peak

        140 dB = firearms, air raid siren, jet engine

        130 dB = jackhammer

        120 dB = jet plane take-off, amplified rock music at 4-6 ft., car stereo, band practice

Extremely loud:

        110 dB = rock music, model airplane

        106 dB = timpani and bass drum rolls

        100 dB = snowmobile, chain saw, pneumatic drill

        90 dB = lawnmower, shop tools, truck traffic, subway

Very loud:

        80 dB = alarm clock, busy street

        70 dB = busy traffic, vacuum cleaner

        60 dB = conversation, dishwasher


        50 dB = moderate rainfall

        40 dB = quiet room


        30 dB = whisper, quiet library


Warning Signs of Hazardous Noise

  • You must raise your voice to be heard

  • You can't hear someone two feet away from you

  • Speech around you sounds muffled or dull after leaving a noise area

  • You have pain or ringing on your ears (tinnitus) after exposure to noise.

Hazardous Noise

Sounds louder than 80 decibels are considered potentially dangerous. Both the amount of noise and the length of time of exposure determine the amount of damage. Hair cells of the inner ear and the hearing nerve can be damaged by an intense brief impulse, like an explosion, or by continuous and/or repeated exposure to noise.

Examples of noise levels considered dangerous by experts are a lawnmower, a rock concert, firearms, firecrackers, headset listening systems, motorcycles, tractors, household appliances (garbage disposals, blenders, food processors/choppers, etc.) and noisy toys. All can deliver sound over 90 decibels and some up to 140 decibels.  If these were prolonged, then it could hurt our hearing.  Read more information on noisy toys.

Can't my ears "adjust" and "get used" to regular noise?  If you think you have "gotten used to" the noise you are routinely exposed to, then most likely you have already suffered damage and have acquired a permanent hearing loss. Noise induced hearing loss is usually gradual and painless, but, unfortunately, permanent. Once destroyed, the hearing nerve and its sensory nerve cells do not regenerate!


Physical Changes;    The most notable physical effect of noise exposure is loss of hearing . Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) affects children, adolescents, young adults, and older adults. Noise not only affects hearing. It affects other parts of the body and body systems . It is now known that noise:

  • Increases blood pressure

  • Has negative cardiovascular effects such as changing the way the heart beats

  • Increases breathing rate

  • Disturbs digestion

  • Can cause an upset stomach or ulcer

  • Can negatively impact a developing fetus, perhaps contributing to premature birth

  • Makes it difficult to sleep, even after the noise stops

  • Intensifies the effects of factors like drugs, alcohol, aging and carbon monoxide .


Noise can also hamper performance of daily tasks, increase fatigue, and cause irritability.

Noise can reduce efficiency in performing daily tasks by reducing attention to tasks. This is a concern of employers when it comes to assuring workers' safety. It is also a concern to a growing number of educators interested in human learning.


The key word in dealing with noise is prevention! We want to eliminate unwanted noise when we can. When noise cannot be eliminated, we want to keep it as low as possible. Here are some things to do:

                     Wear hearing protectors when exposed to any loud or potentially damaging noise at work, in the community (heavy traffic, rock concerts, hunting, etc.) or at home (mowing the lawn, snow blowing the driveway, etc.). Cotton in your ears won't work.

                     Limit periods of exposure to noise . Don't sit next to the speakers at concerts, discos, or auditoriums. If you are at a rock concert, walk out for awhile give your ears a break ! If you are a musician, wear ear protection--it is a necessity! Take personal responsibility for your hearing.

                     Pump down the volume! When using stereo headsets or listening to amplified music in a confined place like a car, turn down the volume. Remember: if a friend can hear the music from your headset when standing three feet away, the volume is definitely too high. Don't be afraid to ask your child to turn down the volume or they loose the head set for a day and try again tomorrow.

                     Educate others and take action! Educate your children through discussion and by example. Wear your ear protection and encourage your children to follow your example. Provide them with ear protection. Remind them to turn down stereo headsets. A rule of thumb is that, if sound from a head set can be heard by others 3 feet away, it is too loud.

                     Inspect your child's toys for noise danger just as you do for small parts that can cause choking. Remember, too, that children tend to hold toys close to their ear which can pose additional threat for hearing damage.

                     Be aware of the noise in your environment and take control of it when you can. Be an advocate for reducing noise pollution. Your county may have a local noise ordinance. Find out what you can do in your community to advocate for quiet. For example, some schools have set a decibel limit for the music played at school dances in order to protect the students' hearing.


Many people are exposed to hazardous noise levels at work, including firefighters; military personnel; disc jockeys; subway workers; construction workers; musicians; farm workers; industrial arts teachers; highway workers; computer operators; landscapers; factory workers; and cab, truck, and bus operators, to name a few. Continued exposure to more than 85 decibels (dBA) of noise may cause gradual but permanent damage to hearing. Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA ) regulations require that, when engineering controls and/or administrative controls cannot reduce noise levels in industry to an eight-hour time-weighted average (TWA) level of less than 85 dBA, a hearing protection program must be established.


OSHA requires a five phase hearing conservation program for industry:

1.                  Noise Monitoring

Sound levels must be measured. Results are used to decide: (a) which employees need to be in the hearing conservation program, (b) whether hearing protection devices must be used or be available on an optional basis, (c) which hearing protection devices are appropriate for different noise levels of the facility.

2.                  Audiometric (Hearing) Testing

All employees in a hearing conservation program must have baseline and annual hearing tests.

3.                  Employee Training

Employees involved in a hearing conservation program must receive annual education and training on (a) the effects of noise on hearing, (b) hearing protection devices (their availability to employees, their advantages and disadvantages, techniques for proper selection, fit, use, and care) and, (c) the purpose and procedures of audiometric testing.

4.                  Hearing Protectors

Hearing protection devices should be made available to all employees. Mandatory versus optional use is determined by noise exposure monitoring. Hearing protection devices must be worn by employees whose eight hour TWA is 90 dBA or greater and by employees whose TWAs are between 85-90 dBA if they display standard threshold shifts in hearing levels.

5.                  Recordkeeping

Sound measurement results, equipment calibration results, and audiometric test records of employees must be maintained for specific periods of time.


Exposure to damaging noise does not come only form the workplace. If you use stereo headsets, operate power tools for yard work, have a long daily commute in heavy traffic, or use a number of household appliances, you still may be exposed to potentially damaging noise.

Recreational activities such as hunting, target shooting, motorboating, waterskiing, jetskiing, snowmobiling, motorcycle riding, woodworking, rock music, or stereo headsets are sources of hazardous noise. So are some movie theaters, home entertainment centers, car stereo systems, health clubs, dance clubs, bars, and amusement centers.


Children's toys can also be hazardous, e.g., toys with horns and sirens, toy vacuum cleaners and vehicles, musical instruments, talking dolls, squeeze toys, and battery-operated toys that emit sounds.


Dealing with noise and its effects is a personal responsibility, a work-place responsibility, and a community responsibility. The first and obvious rule is avoid loud noise whenever possible. A good rule of thumb is to remember that if you must shout to be heard, then you should be avoiding the situation or using ear protection.