Surrounding Sound

When decibels get dangerous

sounds header

Long before he became an expert in hearing loss, Robert Folmer used to go hunting as a kid.

“We would go hunting and shoot the shotgun near our ears, producing a sound of about 160 decibels,” he said. “It’s very brief, but so loud that if you don’t wear hearing protection, it can cause immediate damage to the inner ear structure. When I had my hearing tested many years later that sound exposure was so extreme it caused hearing loss and it’s still there.”

Our world has been getting louder and louder since the Industrial Revolution began in the late 1700s, Folmer pointed out. An associate professor of otolaryngology at OHSU, Folmer said whether it’s exposure to machinery, leaf blowers or amplified music, hearing damage is a function of how loud the sound is and how long it lasts.

“At 100 decibels, for example, the longest you could listen to your music cranked up before damaging your hearing is 15 minutes, whether that sound comes through a speaker or an ear bud,” he said. “Hearing loss from noise exposure can happen at any age. If you damage the inner ear hair cells, the damage is permanent.”

Human ears are designed to respond to very faint sounds, Folmer explained. “Our hearing mechanism is very sensitive,” he said. “The snail shell-like inner ear has little filaments on hair cells that make tiny vibrations, but really loud sounds can cause these filaments to break.”

Those filaments don’t grow back or regenerate, Folmer emphasized. “Loud sound chips away at your hearing gradually and you won’t notice it,” he said. “We lose hearing sensitivity with age anyway, so early damage will cause you to lose your hearing faster.”

Some ear bud and headphone manufacturers are building limiters into their devices (especially those intended for children) that keep sound below a certain decibel level. However, it’s not universal and people should still be careful of their listening sound levels through headphones. “If someone else can hear sound coming from your ear buds or headphones, it’s too loud,” Folmer said.

If using power tools or lawn equipment, playing in a rock band or working around industrial machinery, you should use ear plugs or earmuffs, Folmer cautioned. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, approximately 30 million American workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels on the job, and hearing loss is the most commonly reported occupational disease.

Folmer has three pieces of advice to save your hearing: just turn it down, move away from the loud sound, and wear hearing protection in a loud environment.

Too Loud, Too Close, Too Long

too loud too close

Be cautious of these common sounds that can cause harm to your hearing. Risk of damage is related to the decibel level, the distance from the sound and duration of exposure to the sound. When the decibel level is over 85, it’s time to limit your exposure. If you will be in the red zone for a sustained period (hunting, music event, yard work), wear protection.

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More to Explore

Noise-reducing earplugs for a loud life


Drive a motorcycle? Play in a band? Teach music class? Consider buying ear plugs made from a soft and durable silicone material that reduce the noise without sealing you off from the environment.

There’s an app for that

app for that

Not sure if a noise is in the danger zone? Download a sound level app, such as Decibel X or the free NIOSH Sound Level Meter app available on iTunes.



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