Noise and Children’s Health

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 1.1 billion children and teenagers are at risk for long-term hearing loss from high level noise. Noise damage also causes tinnitus (hearing extra sound) and hyperacusis (hearing sound extra loud).  The Quiet Coalition reports that environmental noise pollution is a public health crisis. This includes health effects starting in childhood like higher risk of stress, insomnia, learning problems in children, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, dementia, and shorter life. Communities need a noise damage prevention plan to protect children’s health.

I propose starting with these steps to protect children and future generations.

Engineered Loudness Limit for Personal Listening Headphones & Earbuds

In 2012, a Canadian survey found over 50% of people aged 3 and up used personal listening devices. It’s probably much higher now. Personal listening is high risk for hearing loss and tinnitus-hyperacusis because there is usually no loudness limit to protect listeners. Limiting loudness in devices is a problem because devices docked to speaker systems need extra volume to work properly, and many different types of manufacturers would be affected.

Headphones and earbuds used for personal listening are a distinct product category. Some manufacturers already make safe personal listening headphones for kids. Some advertise their kids headphones as safe when they don’t limit loudness safely. Without loudness limits, hearing health protection is a behavioural fix: turn it down below 50% and/or don’t listen so long. Engineered fixes build safety into the design of the product.

International science on noise-hearing risk relationships indicate personal listening default volume for groups-at-risk such as children should be no more than:

  • max average loudness = 70 dBA avg (default); 75 dBA avg (user setting change)
  • max peak loudness = 100 dB max

Prescription Hearing Protection Coverage

Even with noise control and prevention, there are still going to be situations where noise is too loud for hearing health safety. Stadium events like hockey, baseball or football games with loud crowd noise. Loud concerts. Hobbies or activities like hunting, woodworking, or ATV-ing. Nobody thinks twice about prescription sunglasses to protect our eyes from sun damage. Coverage for prescription hearing protection to protect ears from noise damage is just as important for public health, especially in children.

If this happened, it would start children on a permanent habit of wearing hearing protection from an early age, just like children now routinely use sunscreen for sun protection. Audiologists could prescribe hearing protection style and features based on the individual’s age and noisy activities. Coverage of children’s prescription hearing protection would cost a lot less than the future burden of health problems from noise-induced hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis.

WHO Guidelines for Community Noise (1999) recommend hearing safe limits:

  • max average loudness = 70 dBA day-evening-night

Quiet Schools

Noise around schools isn’t usually loud enough to damage hearing. But it certainly causes unhealthy chronic stress, and damages school performance. Dr. Arline Bronzaft has done research on children who go to schools with high noise from transportation e.g. trains running nearby, planes flying overhead, highways or high traffic noise. She found reading scores of elementary school children in classrooms near elevated train tracks were a year behind children in quiet classrooms on the other side of the school. That also means children who go to schools surrounded by high environmental noise will do worse educationally overall than children who go to schools in quiet neighbourhoods.

Schools in low income, minority or segregated neighbourhoods typically have higher environmental noise than schools in high income neighbourhoods. Delayed learning from environmental noise pollution creates very unequal educational opportunities for children at these schools compared to quiet schools.

Chronic stress from environmental noise pollution also creates health inequity for children, since chronic stress is linked to high blood pressure, sleeplessness, indigestion and poor eating habits. Studies show that poor sleep alone is linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and early death. That’s very unequal health compared to kids who go to schools or live in neighbourhoods that aren’t exposed to environmental noise pollution.

WHO Guidelines for Community Noise (1999) recommend school noise limits:

  • max average loudness = 55 dBA avg (outside on playground)
  • max average loudness = 35 dBA avg (inside classrooms)

If communities followed through with WHO recommendations, children’s hearing, physical, and mental health would be protected. People say I’m dreaming if I think any of this will ever happen. If not, then be prepared to answer questions from today’s children when they get older. When they have hearing loss, tinnitus, or hyperacusis. When they have noise damage and noise pollution related physical and mental health problems like stress, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, anxiety, depression, dementia, and short life.

Why didn’t anybody protect my hearing health from unsafe personal listening?

Why didn’t anybody protect my hearing health with proper hearing protection for hobbies and activities with damaging noise?

Why didn’t anybody prevent environmental noise pollution so I could learn properly and live a healthy life?

Why indeed.

Feature photo by on Unsplash.

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