Is it too loud? Time to lower the volume
As World Hearing Day approaches in March, with its theme of “Changing mindsets: Let’s make ear and hearing care a reality for all!”, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is using the global event to draw attention to addressing hearing loss as a public health priority.
According to the 2021 WHO World Hearing Report, nearly 50% of people aged 12-35 years – or 1.1 billion young people – are at risk of hearing loss due to prolonged and excessive exposure to loud sounds, including music they listen to through personal audio devices. This number is unacceptable, with timely action needed to prevent and address hearing loss across the life course. Investing in cost-effective interventions will benefit people with hearing loss and bring financial gains to society.
According to the WHO, half of all cases of hearing loss can be prevented through public health measures. One of the most effective strategies for the prevention of hearing loss are safe listening strategies, which reduce the exposure to loud sounds in recreational settings. The WHO created the ‘Make Listening Safe’ initiative in 2015, which aims to change listening habits and behaviours so that the risk to hearing from recreational listening is reduced.
In addition, the WHO published specific guidelines on loud music from consumer electronics in association with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 2019. Now many devices have inbuilt audio controls to limit the volume.
According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), noise above 70 dB over a prolonged period of time may start to gradual damage hearing, while loud noise above 120 dB can cause immediate harm. And while this is commonly perceived as an occupational hazard, such as loud noises in factories, construction sites or other loud workplaces, the CDC estimates that more than half – 53% – of people ages 20 to 69 who have hearing loss from loud noise report no workplace noise exposure.
Instead, their exposure can easily occur during recreational activity, for example, concerts regularly exceed 105 decibels. At this level, only short exposure – four minutes maximum – is recommended. Yet many concerts can be louder than this, and exposure is of course generally for much longer periods. Even short exposures to high-level sounds – above 132 decibels – can cause permanent hearing loss for some people, while even sounds of around 85 decibels can injure the ear if heard for extended periods of time. This can happen at the cinema, nightclubs, or busy bars. Injuries to the ear from sustained exposure to loud noise can also cause temporary or permanent hearing loss, or tinnitus, a constant ringing of the ears.
To prevent recreational hearing damage, the WHO suggest keeping the volume below 60% of maximum on your device – ideally, the volume should be less than 80db. At concerts, one should try to avoid standing next to the speakers, and instead stay in the middle of the crowd where it tends to be quieter. Sound apps on smartphones can accurately gauge just how loud an environment is, and ear plugs or ear muffs may be necessary. Simple steps such as these can allow safe exposure to loud noise and sustained protection of ear health and hearing ability.