Can You Hear Me Now?


We live in a noisy world and, at times, a very noisy Philadelphia metropolitan area, where so-called "noise pollution" surrounds, assaults and bombards our senses day and night.

It could be the racket and rumble of traffic; the screeching sirens of fire and police vehicles, and ambulances (exceptions, certainly, but still major noise-pollution contributors); low-flying airplanes and helicopters; most motorcycles (among the very worst offenders); souped-up cars; loud car radios; trucks, especially ones with clacking diesel engines (also high on the offensive-odors list); the blast of construction machinery; the roaring whine of lawn mowers and weed whackers; barking dogs; and, of course, the bombast of noisy neighbors and generally high-octane people.

While most of these and other sources of noise are fleeting, they can be stressful, and even feed a noise anxiety in some people, who'd rather flee the scene than fight the urge not to seek shelter from the endless barrage.

At times, we may be part of the problem, for example, as at certain concerts and sporting events, when we are encouraged to "make some noise" in support of the home team – a common and usually happy occurrence at Eagles' and Phillies' games. So, when all is "heard" and done, these questions remain: How bad is excessive noise? Is there "good" noise? What does noise say about us? And what can be its effect?

"With the growth and expansion of American society, noise pollution certainly does exist, and is a concern for hearing loss and elevated stress levels for some people, who can become irritated by the noise, but it's not really an anxiety issue generally," stated Laurence V. Cramer, D.O., an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat) physician and surgeon on staff at Bryn Mawr Hospital, part of the Main Line Health System.

"Any type of loud noise, from ones that last a short period of time – such as a half-a-milli-second explosion that registers a very loud 100 decibels – firecrackers and motorcycles come in at 120 to 140 decibels, while just 85 decibels is considered too loud – to ones that last moderately longer, can mean sensory neuro (nerve) hearing loss over time," he explained.

Plug It Up! 
To prevent hearing damage, people should do their best to limit their exposure to loud noises: "Ear plugs should be worn by those who work in very noisy settings, something that is difficult to always do. And it's perfectly okay for someone to simply use their fingers to block their ears from loud, annoying sounds."

The only good noises are those that aren't exceedingly loud, he acknowledged.

"No doubt there is a lot of loud noise around us, but it's about the same as it was 20 years ago, and today, there are restrictions in place mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration against excessive noise, particularly in the work place," according to Cramer.

"While there are some who are annoyed and distracted by loud noises – and who sustain some hearing loss over time from them (about one person in a thousand) – it's hard to say from a general scientific viewpoint that hearing loss is caused by a loud environment," said Michael Ruckenstein, M.D., otolaryngologist, department of otorhinolaryngology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

"There could be a connection between loud noise and hearing loss, but since most of the loud sounds of noise pollution are brief in duration, it hasn't been that well-documented," he added.

But there is an area of noise-making that bears watching. Ruckenstein detailed the effects that MP3 players, used with a headset, will have on hearing in the years ahead. These devices are similar to the Sony Walkman, but are loaded with up to 1,500 songs, unlike the old cassette player, which played just one album at a time.

"The danger is what effects the prolonged use of MP3 players will have on hearing," he said.

To safeguard themselves, people who use the players should set them at no more than 60 percent of volume output and also invest in noise-reduction headphones, he advised.

"Prolonged loud noise can be injurious to the cochlea or inner ear, as sound-pressure waves damage hair cells," said Thomas Willcox, M.D., otolaryngologist, director of the Hearing Center at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, and associate professor of otolaryngology head-and-neck surgery at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. "We are less sensitive to loud noises today because culturally, society has accepted them to some degree, but from a health standpoint, there is no such thing as good noise."

"One result of loud noise can be a temporary cottony feeling, called TTS, which stands for Transient Threshold Shift, and which can last for 24 hours or longer; while permanent hearing loss, PTS, or Permanent Threshold Shift, can occur from exposure to toxic levels of noise over time," elaborated Willcox.

He cited negative sounds such as those "in a factory or shipyard – and also from just one instance of loud noise, such as the discharge of a firearm in very close proximity to someone's ears. A patient of mine, who'd been a policeman for 35 years and was always around guns but never had a hearing problem, lost his hearing when a weapon was fired near him at a shooting range."

According to OSHA, he continued, sounds that exceed 85 decibels, such as sirens, can be painful, literally, and can injure hearing, too. And for every five decibels above the level of 85, exposure to such noises should be cut by half.

To reduce pain and discomfort, as well as agitation, hypersensitive people should try to avoid loud noises and resort to ear plugs, he said. They could also consider treatment through available hearing science and, if needed, get counseling.



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