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Part of the back-to-school preparation each year is buying some new clothes for my daughters. That, and trying to get my kids to go to bed earlier.
My 8th grader has very specific ideas about where she wants to buy her clothes. So one stop was Hollister, a dark, fragrant (Do they spray perfume hourly or mop the floor with it?) store that has incredibly loud music. Many parents I've talked with won't go inside. It's like being in a club, with clothing racks. You have to shout to be heard. Being able to mime "Do you have this in a smaller size?" might be a useful skill to practice before you enter.
I tried to go inside with my daughter, who seemed unbothered by the noise level. After a few minutes, I retreated to the outside of the store, where I could still hear the music but at least my head didn't hurt.
Even though the music did not seem to affect my daughter as much as it did me, I would not want her to ever work there. So I downloaded an app to measure the noise level, which is measured in a unit called decibels (dB). The app looks like a car speedometer, with 0 to 70 dB in blue and above 70 dB in red. The scale goes up to 110 dB. As I write this in my quiet home, it's hovering around 50 dB, which is an average quiet street. That day at Hollister, the measurement averaged 75 dB, which is about the same noise level as a flushing toilet or a vacuum cleaner.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the government agency that tries to protect workers. It requires employees to wear earplugs if the workers are exposed to noise levels at or above 90 dB for 8 hours or longer. If they are exposed to 85 decibels, employers must provide ear protection and conduct hearing tests of the workers. The question is: are these rules being followed and are the young people who work in the store aware of the dangers of being around loud music for an entire shift?
We usually think of these noise safety measures as being important for factories or construction sites but many restaurants, bars and nightclubs, and gyms are guilty of having loud music and many people in these places are likely exposed to noise levels above 90 dB.
A New York Times article quotes hearing expert Dr. Gordon Hughes, at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders: "Signs of too much exposure include not hearing well after the noise stops, a ringing sound and feeling as if the ears are under pressure or blocked. None of these symptoms necessarily mean the damage is permanent, though even if hearing seems restored to normal, damage may have been done. Yet hearing loss from noise typically takes months or even years to develop."
Loud noise can damage hearing by destroying hair cells in the ears. Repeated exposure to loud noise has been linked to more stress, high blood pressure and heart disease.
On September 15, 2013, football fans in Seattle set a World Record for "loudest crowd roar at a sports stadium," reaching 136.6 dB and beating the previous record of 131.76 dB at a soccer match with 52,000 fans in Istanbul. That's louder than a chain saw, and slightly louder than a 747 airplane taking off! Fortunately, the Hearing, Speech and Deafness Center handed out thousands of earplugs to the football fans before the roar.
You hear my voice, you hear that sound
Like thunder gonna shake the ground
-Katy Perry, "Roar"
Ellen Kuwana is a Senior Communications Specialist in Medical Ethics at Seattle Children's Research Institute. She is also a freelance medical writer and editor who specializes in language level and presenting complex concepts to a non-scientist audience. She has two daughters, ages 13 and 10.
Copyright © 1996-2013, Eric H. Chudler, University of Washington