This week’s post is an excerpt from the American Academy of Audiology Foundations’s An EAR to the Ground Report. We will be distributing the full report at our booth at AudiologyNow! in April so please stop by to pick up a free copy. Enjoy!
Reprinted/republished with permission from the American Academy of Audiology.
Just over a decade ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that, worldwide, noise-induced hearing impairment is the most prevalent irreversible occupational hazard. In the WHO’s 1999 “Guidelines for Community Noise,” it was estimated that over 120 million people worldwide had disabling hearing difficulties (Environmental Health Perspectives 113, no. 1 [January 2005]). The causes of the growing noise pollution problem include increased population growth, urban sprawl, lack of noise-reduction regulations, an increasing number of vehicles and air traffic, and human dependence on noise-producing electronics.
In Gordon Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence, the author identifies silence as an endangered species. Indeed, he quotes Nobel Prize–winning bacteriologist Robert Koch to reinforce the potential future impact of noise pollution: “The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague.” In his pursuit of silence, Hempton traverses the United States measuring the decibel levels of machines, cars, airplanes, rain, and even deer trekking through the woods. He visits state parks and federal buildings/department offices (the Federal Aviation Administration, for example). He informs, educates, and attempts to increase awareness of noise pollution and prevention. He perseveres, undaunted and optimistic in a time when, as he notes, noise is so prevalent, it’s taken for granted—so much so that noise is not among the 25 metrics that constitute the Environmental Performance Index rankings issued annually by Yale University’s Center for Environmental Law and Policy. Those rankings include drinking water, indoor air pollution, industrial CO2 emissions, and pesticide regulation. The reason that noise pollution is excluded, according to the center’s director, is lack of consistent data collected methodologically among more than 150 countries.
Additionally, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that over 30 million U.S. workers are exposed to hazardous sound levels on the job (“Work Related Hearing Loss,” NIOSH Publication No. 2001-103, www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2001-103/). While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to provide hearing protection to workers who are overexposed to noise on the job, OSHA recognizes that the problem is difficult to monitor. In spite of requirements that include employer implementation of a continuing, effective hearing conservation program, the problem is not abating. Worse, noise pollution, both on and off the job, has a growing impact on quality of life.
Chew Faster, the Noise Is Killing Me—Purposeful Noise: Some workplace and environmental noise is purposeful. In April 2010, CNN aired a segment on how restaurants use loud music to help turn over tables and increase consumption. According to the segment, “In the mid-1980s, researchers at Fairfield University demonstrated that people increased their rate of chewing by almost a third when listening to faster, louder music, accelerating from 3.83 bites a minute to 4.4 bites a minute. A 2008 study in France further found that when music decibels are amped up, men not only consumed more drinks but consumed them in less time.”
Anti-noise activists describe the effect of “secondhand noise” as similar to that of secondhand smoke. In an article published in the July/August 2010 issue of Audiology Today, a study on the effects of utility-scale wind turbines shows that the production of low-frequency noise and vibration from these turbines can have negative effects on people living and working near them. While the noise produced is not believed to cause hearing loss, it is known that the “emissions” do cause sleep disturbances. Coined “Wind- Turbine Syndrome,” other symptoms include headache, visceral vibratory vestibular disturbance, dizziness, tinnitus, ear pressure/pain, external auditory canal sensation, memory and concentration deficits, irritability, and fatigue. On October 6, 2010, the New York Times online business feed reported on efforts in a small Maine community to remove a new local wind farm. According to the article, “Lawsuits and complaints about turbine noise, vibrations and subsequent lost property value have cropped up in Illinois, Texas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Massachusetts, among other states. In one case in DeKalb County, Ill., at least 38 families have sued to have 100 turbines removed from a wind farm there. A judge rejected a motion to dismiss the case in June.”
It’s Hear, It’s Everywhere: And the United States is not alone. Other countries are also plagued by increased noise pollution. According to the European Environment Agency, over 65 percent of the population is exposed to ambient sound at levels above 55 dBA, while over 17 percent is exposed to levels above 65 dBA (Environmental Health Perspectives 113, no. 1 [January 2005]). This exposure can lead to hearing loss as well as other health and learning problems. It’s not just about hearing loss prevention and restoration—it’s a matter of systemic health and well-being.