Avoid Hearing Loss This Fourth of July

June 27, 2003
Contact: Eve Harris (415) 885-7277

For more than 200 years, Americans have celebrated the Fourth of July with deafening noise from firecrackers, concerts and parades -- noise that can cost us our hearing, according to Robert W. Sweetow, director of audiology at UCSF Medical Center.

Noise from a firecracker, even at what might seem to be a safe distance, can lead to hearing loss in just minutes, said Sweetow, in the Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery department.

In the workplace, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates a noise level of no more than 90 decibels for an eight-hour period for employees without protection gear. Sweetow said that every five-decibel increase in noise level requires that the time period exposed be cut in half. So, a 95-decibel noise level would be allowed for only four hours, a 100-decibel environment for two hours.

A noise intensity of 126 decibels, often produced at rock concerts, can cause damage in less than two minutes, Sweetow said. Fireworks can produce up to 150 decibels if within three feet of the source.

About 28 million Americans, or 10 percent of the nation's population, suffer from hearing loss. It's estimated that 10 million to 17 million of these people sustain at least a portion of the damage from noise exposure, according to Sweetow. The gradual deterioration of hearing over several years that occurs due to excessive noise is called "noise-induced hearing loss." A sudden loss of hearing from a single incident is called "acoustic trauma" and can be temporary or permanent.

With hearing loss come side effects such as balance problems, permanent ringing in the ears and headaches.

Sweetow said mild hearing loss as a child or young adult may set the stage for significant premature hearing loss. Some studies suggest a "damaged-ear" theory, proposing that even minor hearing damage at a young age may make a person more susceptible to permanent loss, he said. Minor damage may become major damage when combined with the effects of age, disease, drugs and noise exposure over the years.

The good news is that noise-induced hearing loss can be prevented. By taking precautions on July 4th, you can prevent premature or permanent hearing loss, Sweetow explained.

Here are some suggestions to prevent hearing loss:

  • Wear earplugs when going to rock concerts or fireworks exhibits. Earplugs, properly worn, can reduce noise by 15 to 30 decibels.

  • Keep as much distance as possible from the sources of noise, such as fireworks and amplifiers at concerts.

  • Protect your children by avoiding loud noise. Minor damage at a young age can lead to major hearing loss.

  • Avoid prolonged periods of loud noise. If you notice your ears are ringing or that your hearing seems dulled, it's time to give your ears a break. Even short breaks can reduce the chance of permanent damage.

For information about hearing loss evaluation and treatment, contact the UCSF Audiology Clinic at UCSF Medical Center at (415) 353-2101.