How Loud is too loud?
What does “loud” mean?
We measure the loudness of sound in decibels (dB). Most experts recommend that you use earplugs when exposed to 85 dB and above. But what does 85 dB mean? The following chart shows common sounds and their associated sound levels.
20 dB Ticking watch
30 dB Quiet whisper
40 dB Refrigerator hum
50 dB Rainfall
60 dB Sewing machine
70 dB Washing machine
80 dB Alarm clock (two feet away)
85 dB Average traffic
95 dB MRI
100 dB Blow dryer, subway train
105 dB Power mower, chainsaw
110 dB Screaming child
120 dB Rock concert, thunderclap
130 dB Jackhammer, jet engine plane (100 feet away)
Workers and others in loud environments should not be exposed to sounds over 85 dB over an eight-hour period.
According to NIOSH, such industries as mining, construction, oil-gas well drilling and servicing and agriculture, as well as the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army, use this exposure limit of 85 dB for an eight-hour workday. For more information, see the NIOSH Web site.
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL)
For many people, tinnitus is a symptom of hearing loss. More than 90 percent of American Tinnitus Association members with tinnitus also report some hearing loss. For many, loss is at the higher frequencies, which is often induced by exposure to loud noise.
Noise-induced hearing loss can be caused by a one-time exposure to a loud sound or by repeated exposure to sounds over an extended period of time. You cannot “toughen up” your hearing by regularly listening to loud noises.
Healthy hearing habits can help prevent hearing loss and tinnitus. However, the effects of loud noises can worsen existing tinnitus and further degrade hearing. If you already have one or both of these conditions, protect your ears from further damage. If you do not have them, learn how to protect your hearing.
How damage occurs
Sounds of less than 80 dB, even after long exposure, are unlikely to cause hearing loss. It’s impossible to predict how individuals respond to loud noises – each person’s sensitivity to sound is different. However, we know that exposure to a one-time-only or continuous noise can cause temporary hearing loss. If hearing recovers, this temporary loss is called temporary threshold shift, which typically disappears 16 to 48 hours after exposure.
Hearing loss can also be permanent if loud sounds damage or destroy the delicate ear cells in your inner ear called cilia. Once these cells are damaged or destroyed, they cannot be repaired. Research into regenerating inner ear cells is underway but has not yet advanced to the treatment stage.
When you need protection
This is the standard recommendation: use earplugs, earmuffs or other protection devices when exposed to sounds above 85 dB. You probably don’t have a sound meter with you to test decibel levels everywhere you go, so you can’t always be sure when your environment is too loud. In general, if you are standing three feet away from someone and cannot hear what they are saying, the noise level could be damaging your hearing.
How loud is too loud — an interactive Web site
Check out Dangerous Decibels, a great Web site for kids and adults alike, that tests your knowledge of noise risk and just how loud sounds in our everyday lives can be. Hint: click on the site’s “Virtual Exhibit” and have some fun.
MP3s, iPODs & your ears
One in three teens owns an MP3 player or iPOD. Can listening to loud music with these personal players damage their hearing? New York audiologist and ATA volunteer Dr. Craig Kasper and other experts weigh in. Read more.
Hearing conservation tips
Hearing conservation means protecting your ears from excessively loud sounds:
Walk away from loud noises.
Turn down the volume.
Limit the intensity of the noise by not standing directly near its source.
Limit the time you expose your ears to loud noises.
Wear earplugs when you’re around sounds of 85 dB and above. (Disposable foam earplugs are inexpensive, easy to insert and effective.)
Turn down your CD/cassette player, stereo or iPod.
Cross the street when you hear someone operating a leaf blower.
Wear earplugs at concerts/go to the back of the nightclub or outside to give your ears a break.
Cover your ears with your hands when you’re walking past a jackhammer.
Keep a clean pair handy in your purse, backpack, wallet or pocket.
Wear earplugs during the trailers at the movies – their volume is typically cranked up.
Ask the manager at the movie theater to turn the volume down if it is too loud. Theater staff will very often comply with this request.
Wear earplugs at amusement parks and concerts. Earplugs cut out just 15-20 dB so you’ll still be able to hear.
Wear earplugs or protective earmuffs when using power devices, e.g., lawn mower, tool, vacuum and other noisy household appliances.
Read the labels for noise levels on appliances, children’s toys and any product that generates sound.
Note to musicians
You most probably need special, custom-made hearing protection since you play, sit or stand near loud instruments and speakers. Here are a few sites (of many) with good information about music, noise risk and protection:
Sensaphonics Hearing Conservation was founded by audiologist Michael Santucci in 1985. It is a research and development company committed to controlling the damaging effects of loud sound, particularly regarding musicians and hearing loss. Check them out.
Etymotic specializes in information and products for those involved with music, with special hearing protection for musicians.
Quiet drumsticks? If you are a drummer, you know what NOISE is. Take a look at a product used widely by drummers in the profession.