March 2017 Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
Remember that Rolling Stones concert a while back? Mick Jagger screaming “Jumping Jack Flash” at you from those monster speakers? And Keith Richards’ guitar solos that seemed to pierce your brain?
Even though the giant red tongue on your outrageously expensive concert T-shirt has faded, the memory of that day is permanent. Unfortunately, so is something else, although you probably didn’t realise it: irreversible hearing loss. Rock concerts typically fall into the “extremely loud” category of sound, 90 to 110 decibels, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA). At this noise level, the human ear sustains permanent damage in minutes — not only from the music, but from friends screeching into your ear to be heard over the music. If you sat closer than 30 feet from a monster speaker, you really blasted your hearing.
And these days, it’s not just live music causing damage. Listening to loud music through earbuds creates the same effect and may be even worse because earbuds conduct sound close inside the ear. Experts say that millennials may be at an increased risk for hearing loss because they typically spend more time using earbuds — they have been labeled “Generation Deaf” or “The iPod Generation” — and experts suggest that their hearing loss may reach epic proportions as they age. Already, the number of children being diagnosed with hearing loss has increased 30 percent in recent decades. Audiologist Emily Henderson sees a “downward trend in age” as more people in their 40s and 50s are diagnosed with hearing loss, long before their senior years. Unfortunately, exposure to loud noise can quickly and irreversibly damage the tiny hair cells deep in the ear that conduct sound. Although the post-concert buzzing in your ears disappears after a few hours, your hearing has nevertheless been permanently damaged. And the longer you listen, the deeper the damage. Over time, the cumulative effect of hearing damage from any source, coupled with typical age-related hearing loss, can result in substantial hearing loss.
“Noise-induced hearing loss is the only type of hearing loss that is entirely preventable,” says Jennifer Thomson, a clinical audiologist at University of Rochester Medicine. “Not only is the level of noise important to consider, the length of exposure to loud sounds is also important.”
Thomson notes that listening to music on phones or other devices can produce sounds at dangerous levels of 100 decibels or greater. She suggests avoiding exposure to noise over 85 decibels. Preventing such damage is simple, Thomson says: Wear foam earplugs (pushed deep into the ear canal) or over-the-ear headphones. Do not turn the volume up past the halfway limit on the device. Make sure that you can hear people standing at an arm’s length from you and that they cannot hear the music from your earbuds. Do not increase the volume to drown out external noise.
Experts generally advocate the “60-60 rule”: Listen to music at 60 percent of the device’s maximum volume for only 60 minutes. Tech giant Apple is aware of the potential dangers posed by its products. Its website suggests that iPod users should “listen responsibly,” noting that the maximum volume limit — which according to non-Apple sources is approximately 100 decibels — can be adjusted (go to “settings”). The site also warns that users should be vigilant to avoid adapting to higher volumes over time. Unlike the 1970s-era Sony Walkman, whose disposable batteries often quit unexpectedly (and no one carried extra batteries), today’s devices can inflict greater damage with their extended battery power.
And it’s not just about music. Also in the “extremely loud” category are fireworks, chainsaws and other power tools, gas-powered lawn mowers, snow blowers and motorcycles. Hearing loss can also be sustained by exposure to noise from manufacturing and construction equipment and hunting rifles. Prolonged exposure increases the risks. Hunting can lead to hearing loss due to repeated gunshot sounds close to the ear. The HLAA lists firearms in the “painful” category — 120 to 150 decibels. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, small .22-caliber rifles can create noise around 140 decibels, and larger rifles can produce noise over 175 decibels. That’s as loud as jet engines, sirens and jackhammers. By comparison, conversation typically ranges between 40 and 60 decibels. Experts call this “shooter’s ear” and note those who would normally wear ear protection at the shooting range often forgo it in the wild so they can hear the flap of a duck’s wing or the snap of branches that indicates an approaching deer.
Although noise from traffic, blow dryers, blenders, vacuum cleaners and alarm clocks falls into HLAA’s “very loud” category, Thomson says that brief exposure at this level, 70 to 90 decibels, is generally considered safe. At the “moderate” level, 40 to 60 decibels, are dishwashers, clothes dryers, rainfall and regular conversation. If you are having trouble hearing conversations because you believe others are mumbling, or if you can’t hear high-pitched sounds that others hear, you should get your hearing tested. If the people around you refuse to acknowledge their hearing issues and insist on blasting the television or stereo, protect your own hearing by moving to another room. And if you attended many rock concerts that most likely damaged your hearing, you are in the company of rockers like Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Sting, Neil Young, Jeff Beck and Ozzy Osbourne.
The Guinness Book of Records once had a category for loudest rock band, but no longer. Deep Purple held the title in 1972 for its 117-decibel concert inside a London theatre, where three people were rumoured to have been rendered unconscious by the loud music. The Who (and Townshend) eclipsed the record in 1976 for an outdoor concert at which the sound measured 126 decibels just 100 feet from the speakers. The band KISS allegedly hit the 136-decibel level in Ottawa in 2009 before the neighbours complained. One reason for music-induced hearing loss is lack of knowledge about how quickly permanent damage can occur, but the other reason is a longstanding belief held by the young, described by Clapton: “I thought I was invincible.”