My body was vibrating. My ears were ringing. My brain was numb. My heart was pounding.
No, I was not ill nor had I just fallen in love. I was still experiencing the after-effects of a one-hour dinner in a high-noise environment—a sports bar with loud raucous talk and laughter augmented by chukka-chukka music in the background that our waiter insisted could not be turned down. I was surprised—and angry—at how painful just one hour of noise pollution could be.
This experience motivated me to question our “noise habits.” What were the side effects of exposure to such ear-splitting cacophony? And what could we do to protect our hearing?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines “noise” as “unwanted or disturbing sound.” Since we can’t see noise, we are often oblivious to its effects on us, even if the noise is “wanted.” But the major side-effects of noise pollution are serious and sometimes surprising. The three most shocking facts I discovered are:
- The leading cause of hearing loss is not aging but noise.
- Excessive noise can lead to a whole host of other serious health problems. These include coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, stress-related health conditions such as migraine, colitis, and ulcers, and decreased sleep and sleep quality.
- Excessive noise can lead to emotional problems such as mental fatigue, anxiety, and aggression.
How does noise pollution cause hearing loss? According to the NIDCD, sounds that are too loud or last for too long damage the hair cells in our ears that are responsible for transmitting sound to the brain. These hair cells are sensitive and, once damaged, they cannot grow back.
Why is excessive noise to hazardous to your physical health? The reason is that noise causes a stress response. You hear a loud sound, and a stress cascade begins—adrenalin is released, blood vessels constrict, muscles tense, and blood pressure rises. We are not fully in control of this stress response: “Even though noise may have no relationship to danger, the body will respond automatically to noise as a warning signal.”
Why is excessive noise hazardous to your emotional health? Noise is associated with increased aggression, decreased helpful behavior, reduced motivation and task performance, and even impaired cognitive development in children. Moreover, hearing loss, whether caused by noise pollution or aging, can be a psychological problem as well as a physical problem. A person who suffers from hearing loss may tend to isolate himself, feel lonely, and, in extreme cases, even succumb more easily to depression. (For more on the effects of loneliness, see this blog.)
Some age-related hearing loss is inevitable, but noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is 100% preventable. Once it occurs, you can’t reverse it, but you can prevent your hearing from deteriorating further. Here are 10 habits that will reduce your risk:
- Do a simple noise assessment in your home or office from time to time throughout the day. Stop for a moment. Listen. Is there background noise that could be eliminated or ameliorated? (Did you leave the sprinkler on?!)
- Avoid places with a high noise level or limit your exposure.
- When you find yourself raising your voice over noise, that's a clue that noise pollution could be harming your hearing. Beat a hasty retreat if you can.
- Wear ear plugs (which fit in the ear) or ear muffs (which fit over the ear) in sound-polluted environments. Plan to bring noise-cancelling plugs/muffs when noise is unavoidable, such as on airplane flights.
- Plan for “quiet time” every day. Give yourself a break from even “good noise” (sorry about the oxymoron) such as your beloved music. Turn off the TV.
- Avoid ear-busters such as hair dryers, food processors, and leaf-blowers, or use them sparingly or with ear protection. This is not a trivial suggestion. The level at which noise can cause permanent hearing loss begins at about 85 decibels, typical of a hair dryer, food processor or kitchen blender.
- Buy appliances with low noise ratings. If you have a timer on your dishwasher, set it so you will be away from the kitchen while it does its dirty work.
- Turn down the volume on TVs, portable music players, and other sound systems. How low can you go and still hear comfortably? Experiment.
- Protect children. Noisy environments affect children’s ability to learn and their ability to cope with normal challenges. Educate children about caring for their ears.
- Walk away from noise: If the outside environment is noisy, go inside and/or close windows. If the inside environment is noisy, go out.
If you have other ideas about reducing unpleasant and harmful noise, please write them in "Comments."
The damage from most temporary noise exposure is reversible. So driving down the highway singing loudly to your favorite music is not likely to hurt you. But when does too much noise lead to irreversible damage? If you are curious about the level of noise that can cause hearing damage, click on the CDC’s “noise meter.” This clever meter illustrates how intensity and duration of sound combine to produce risk of hearing loss. You'll learn, among other things, that using a chain saw for more than 2 minutes without hearing protection is dangerous to your ears. I'm crossing that off my to-do list right now!
As for me, I survived the din of dinner. After just one hour of exposure, I was at little risk for permanent hearing loss. My server may not be so lucky. Unremitting noise exposure, day after day, provokes changes that are deafening, literally and figuratively. In fact, at least one study found that one third of students who work in noisy environments like music clubs, bars, and restaurants were found to have permanent hearing loss. Hearing loss is also an occupational hazard for construction workers, landscapers, and anyone who uses noisy machinery. (To file a complaint about hazardous noise in the workplace, contact OSHA.) Astonishingly, 1/5 of Americans over the age of 12 suffer from some hearing loss.
And as for the noisy restaurant—I'm going to follow my own advice in habit #2 and avoid it like the plague in the future.
(c) Meg Selig, 2013
“The leading cause of hearing loss...” Brody, Jane. “What causes hearing loss?” (However, this website states that age-related hearing loss is more common. For other causes of hearing loss, see here.)
“Noise as a warning signal.”
Chepesiuk, R. “Decibel Hell: The Effects of Living in a Noisy World.”
Goines, Lisa & Hagler, Louis, “Noise Pollution: A Modern Plague.”
Meg Selig is the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For more on habits, healthy lifestyle, and willpower, follow her on Facebook or Twitter.