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Monday 25 September 2023 Dublin: 16°C
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Column Our world has never been louder – and noise can be dangerous
Tinnitus can be caused frighteningly easily – at any age – and even lead to permanent hearing damage, writes Robert Kelly.

OUR WORLD HAS never been louder. Cities are full of loud engines and angry motorists making good use of their horns. MP3 players and smartphones are widespread so our music or radio can follow us anywhere.

How loud is our world, though? A way to measure sound is by using the decibel. It is used for many things and you may recognise it from Hi-Fi systems.

Tyres are a nice noise example, as the EU now state that tyres require noise emission stickers on them at the point of sale. We sonically interact with tyres very regularly. Every time a vehicle passes, tyre noise can drown out the music you could be listening to with your headphones. The tyres on my car have a rating of about 71dB. This means that, if walking along a busy road where all the cars have the same tyres as mine, there would roughly be a 71dB ‘noise floor’. The noise floor is a term used to describe how loud the background noise is. Airports and libraries have very high and low noise floors, respectively.

Our relationship with noise

When listening to music, we like it to be able to hear it. We like it loud and we love bass, so we tend to turn it up that bit extra. With the tyre example, we now have a 71dB noise floor to compete with, so up goes the volume of our music player to drown the other noise out.

The ear does its best to cope, it desensitises itself to loud environments to protect itself from damage. Our eyes adjust to dark and bright spaces. That said, our eyes can give pain when we look at something very bright, so we know the eyes cannot cope and we can do something about it.

Our ears do not give out the same cry for help. The ear tells us of damage only after it has been done and after the noise finishes. This is what causes the ‘ringing’ in your ears, which you may have experienced after clubs and concerts. Another sign that your ears are not happy with you is when you leave the loud place and your ears feel stuffed.

The EU and its United States counterpart both recognise the problems with noise. They describe concept of the daily doses of noise. This means, in the workplace, there is only so long you should work in that environment before the employer takes action by way of earplugs, ear defenders etc. At 85dB, the dose is eight hours according to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.

The first table shows some examples of what makes noise in our world. The second table on the right shows what the daily dose of various sound levels is recommended to be. It should be noted that every 3dB you add to the volume the daily dose is halved. For every 3dB you take away from the volume the daily dose is doubled.

Take a look at nightclubs, they are measured at around 110dB which means less than two minutes of exposure is likely to do some damage to your hearing. A 119dB nightclub is less than 14 seconds! Headphones can easily be very loud, as well – I’ve measured some mid-range in-ear headphones at 95dB to 110dB when playing music at around ¾ to full volume.

Going back to the tyre noise example from earlier, you will have to boost your music over the noise floor of 71dB, maybe by 3 or 6 dB. These listening levels are creeping towards the red. And, of course, there is a lot more going on in a city than just looking a tyre noise alone. Cities are generally observed around the 85dB mark.

Tinnitus – a real first world problem

We can easily age ourselves by 10, 20 years or even more in terms of hearing health by just going to night clubs regularly. This damage is permanent and will only be added to by our natural ageing process. Our hearing system is extremely sensitive and delicate. It operates using the smallest bones in our body.

The ringing in your ears, called temporary tinnitus,  may not go away the next time you get it. Permanent tinnitus caused by noise is becoming more common. In the UK, an estimated 1 in 10 people have mild tinnitus, and 1 in 6 people are estimated to have a form of hearing loss or damage which could then be aggravated to produce tinnitus. Tinnitus is the perception of a noise with no actual source, so in essence it sounds like it’s inside your head.

It is very easy to say that it won’t happen to us, but it can. Sadly, even ear infections can cause tinnitus. An especially unfair cause is to experience a sudden bang from something like a jackhammer as you pass a building site.

As we age, our hearing naturally deteriorates and the hearing loss gets closer to the frequencies important for speech recognition. This deterioration isn’t accompanied by signs of damage, it is just aging. By exposing ourselves to loud sounds we are speeding up this process, but at least we have warning signs to work off.

Ear plugs, the soft foam ones, are great at taking the edge off. In fact they make it easier to listen to people talking to you in loud pubs and clubs as they cut out a lot of the high pitched noise getting in the way of speech sounds and they don’t damage your enjoyment of the music by keeping the bass intact.

You can’t beat the noise

We are one of the first generations to make use of the digital revolution for music. Media players are everywhere, much more widespread than the Walkman ever was. Music is getting louder, too. I feel we have to think about how natural it is to listen to music on headphones in loud places. I’m not saying we should stop, I love music too much for that, but we simply cannot beat the loud environments we experience by raising the volume. All we will do is hurt ourselves in the long run.

This YouTube clip is a short documentary on tinnitus which has recently been doing the rounds on Twitter. It is well worth the watch.

Thank you for reading and happy hearing!

Treasure it.

Uploaded by Tom Chittenden

Further Information and Support

Loud appliances such as lawnmowers, hoovers and pressure washers should have noise emission stickers on them. Please take a look at what dB level they produce and take action accordingly. When in doubt, use ear plugs. Hardware stores sell pairs for as little as 50cent. Nightclubs generally have them for free.

Tinnitus and hearing loss can in some cases seriously deteriorate your quality of life. If you are worried about your hearing or have hearing problems, please visit the below websites for support and advice on your next step. Please beware of people selling cures for tinnitus, no cure for tinnitus currently exists.

Robert Kelly is a recording and mix engineer from Dublin. A graduate of Ballyfermot College of Further Education in Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast, he is currently a postgraduate student in audio production at the University of Salford, Manchester. Robert has a passion for education and hearing health. He is aiming to raise the awareness of the dangers associated with the loud modern world and to promote safe music production practices. Follow Robert on Twitter @RobKellySound or visit his blog Rob Kelly Sound.

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