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Wired by sound: the long-term impacts of constant noise

Posted February 19, 2013

I have a favourite café that I have patronised regularly for many years. It’s often crowded and noisy and, until this year, I coped with that by taking my coffee early – before the café ambience became painfully loud. But sadly, I can’t go there any more. In addition to their noisy background, they have now introduced muzak, and my tolerance for pain and discomfort has been exceeded.

Discomfort is only the beginning – excessive environmental noise is actually very bad for your health. It’s responsible for over a third of hearing loss in Australia. Indeed, the economic costs alone of hearing loss have been calculated at almost A$12 billion dollars a year.

Even a temporary loss of hearing acuity can become permanent after consistent exposure to noise. This is a major burden for the whole of society. Men account for 61% of the health expenditure on hearing loss and women account for the rest.

And things are about to get worse – the prevalence of hearing loss is expected to increase from 17% now to 28% by 2050.

Loud rock music is probably the most obvious example of noise that damages hearing. But cafes and restaurants are also full of noise, loud speech, and loud laughter. The ceilings are low, the walls have no insulation, and the floors are bare – all of this creates a space that amplifies noise.

Anything above 85 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss and many music venues exceed this level. What’s more, music entertainment and night clubs use extreme amplification, which can cause incremental hearing damage.

Noise affects attention, concentration and thinking. Given the high levels of noise in which we live and work, is it any wonder that Australia has a high prevalence of people with hearing impairment? One person in four is likely to develop permanent hearing loss as a consequence of excessive and damaging levels of noise.

The precise impacts of noise on critical child learning capacities haven’t been measured and require urgent attention so we can know what needs to be done to make the hearing environment a healthier one. Indeed, we need to be especially worried about the health and well-being of children in the longer term.

Hearing loss usually develops slowly and can reach the critical stage before the young person is aware of it.

Repeated exposure to noise at entertainment venues, via ear phones and electronic devices, heavy traffic, and loud conversation, among other things, puts young people at risk of ongoing damage to their hearing, which will worsen with age. This will affect their communication, learning capacities, and capacity to function well in the community.

There’s no medical treatment for hearing damage (apart from hearing aids), and parents seem unaware of the risks and the need to protect their children from excessive noise exposure. The problems urgently need more research.

Prevention is the best option. Eliminating or at least controlling all noise sources to harmless levels is needed to prevent environmentally-induced hearing impairment.

Source: The Conversation, story by Margot Prior

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