Why the 21st century is bad for your hearing and how to protect it
Life 250 odd years ago was altogether more sedate than it is now: music wasn’t amplified (the first loudspeakers didn’t turn up until the 1860s), horses were the fastest means of transport and the only real threat to your hearing was exposure to gun- and cannon-fire (for just a small proportion of the population).
The last two and a half centuries have made the world a much noisier place. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the invention of all manner of machinery – not to mention the building of factories to make things in – everyday life for many people became an assault on the ears.
Skip to today: the early speakers have morphed into tiny earbuds capable of delivering 100dB+ directly into our ears; we go to pubs, clubs and concerts where the volume is so high normal conversation is impossible; we ride motorbikes with powerful (and sometimes noisy) engines; we live in cities where there is a constant drone of traffic, and we travel to work on trains and tubes where even the quiet carriage is actually quite loud.
What is this doing to my hearing? I hear you ask.
Well, with ‘normal’ use, our hearing should remain good until we reach our seventies or eighties (in other words, a normal lifespan). Trouble is, ‘normal’ is based on pre-Industrial Revolution noise levels. There are two mechanisms of harm to your hearing: high intensity (very loud but usually short-lived noises, such as gunfire, explosions, fireworks, loud music, motor racing) and intensity over time (i.e. modest sounds over a long period of time).
So, what are the main hearing hazards of modern life and how can we overcome them?
- Public transport
Certain parts of the London Underground are notoriously loud – the loudest sound recorded on the tube was between Liverpool Street and Bethnal Green at 109dB (louder than a helicopter taking off nearby, but not quite up to chainsaw level) – while the trip between Kentish Town and Tufnell Park on the Northern Line averages at 97dBA. Overground trains, trams and buses tend to be quieter, but the best advice is to prepare for the worst, then you’ll be fine in other scenarios.
The obvious temptation is to plug in your headphones and switch off from the world. However, you’ll probably find yourself nudging up the volume to block out the extraneous noise so you can hear your content clearly – so you could end up subjecting your ears to damaging noise levels. Instead, wear noise-cancelling headphones (see below) to simply reduce the background noise to a more acceptable level (i.e. not listening to music); alternatively, wear ear plugs to help block out the noise.
- Noisy nightlife
Everyone at some point has been to a pub or club and not being able to conduct a conversation without shouting – unless you’ve paid to listen to the music that’s drowning out the conversation, it can ruin a good evening, and even if you want to hear music that loud, you may be damaging your hearing if you stay in that environment for too long.
Avoid overexposure to loud noise where possible – if you’re going to a rock concert, consider getting some musicians’ earplugs and wearing them for the support act (you’ll still be able to hear them), then listen to the main act without if you must. If possible, seek out a quieter area for a while, just to give your ears a rest.
- Using headphones
In 1979, the personal stereo hit! Since then, headphone use has grown exponentially. We use them regularly: on public transport on our daily commute, when playing computer games, in the office to block out the background chitter-chatter… The WHO recommends that we listen to no more than 85dBA over any eight-hour period; if you’re listening at 100dB (the maximum level out of a handset), it’s only really safe to listen for 20-25 minutes in any eight-hour period before your hearing is damaged.
But it’s hard to tell by listening alone whether the volume is damagingly high, so one solution is to consider using a hearing safeguarding app, such as HearAngel®, which can tell you when you’ve literally heard enough. By monitoring your consumption of sound, it calculates your personal sound and provides you with information and warnings at levels you choose. Think of it as a FitBit for your ears when listening to headphones.
A second option is to use noise-cancelling headphones, which enable you to listen at a lower volume in noisy environments. Earpiece-type noise-cancellingheadphones will reduce ambient noise by a factor of 10, over-ear ones by 20 (their physical shape makes a more effective barrier than in-ear headphones). They work by cancelling out the noise you’re being exposed to, and they make it quieter even if you’re not actually listening to anything (useful on that noisy tube train). You’ll still have to listen at 6-10dB above the noise ‘floor’ (residual level), but as that will be much lower, the total listening level will be correspondingly lower.
- Environmental noise
Sirens, road works, traffic, even the sound of a coffee machine making your morning espresso – it seems that everywhere we go, we’re surrounded by noise. Remember, sound is what you want to hear, everything else is noise. Sometimes a little peace and quiet is exactly what you need, so seek out a quiet space and just sit back with a good book. As our exposure to sound is calculated as an average over a 24-hour period, those quiet times will help bring your average down and your ears will benefit from a period of no or low exposure to sound.
- Not-so a silent night
If you live on a busy road, it can be hard to achieve total silence, but it will help more than just your ears if you can make your bedroom environment as quiet as possible. Double glazing and heavy-duty blackout curtains can help (they don’t just block out the light); if necessary, consider wearing ear plugs at night.
If you understand the risks to your hearing it is easier to mitigate them – so take the time to protect your hearing; once you notice it is going, it’s too late. You can’t repair damaged hearing – it has gone forever.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephen Wheatley has spent six years creating occupational hearing protection solutions and is one of the founders of HearAngel – a smartphone app that helps you protect your ears from damage while using headphones.