Nobody is Listening to the Modern Hearing Problem

The buzz on the Internet is about the buzz you might not be able to hear. 

It all started when a clever gent in Wales invented a device to chase away young hooligans loitering about malls and storefronts.  The device, now patented and called the Mosquito, sends out a high-pitch shrill that only young ears can hear. 

As we age, we lose the ability to detect higher-frequency sounds.  Most people over age 30 can't hear anything higher than 16 kilohertz, regardless of how loud the sound is.  The Mosquito's buzz is at 17 kilohertz, and it is loud and annoying, which sends the little punks scurrying.  Score one for the adults.

But then some clever punk turned the tables.  Teenagers are now downloading the Mosquito MP3 and using it as a ring-tone in school because teachers can't hear it.  Score one for the kids.

All this is fun and games, but no one seems to be concerned about the health issue this has revealed.  There is natural age-related hearing loss, called presbycusis.  And then there's unnatural, accelerated hearing loss from noise.  Most 30-year-olds should be able to hear a 17-kilohertz sound.  This is the case in quiet societies in remote regions such as Nepal and parts of Africa.  The fact that many of us cannot hear the Mosquito is a result of an epidemic of noise-induced hearing loss, not just aging.

The culprits

According to decade-old data from the National Institutes of Health, more than a third of the 28 million Americans with hearing difficulties lost their hearing at least partially due to noise. 

And the problem is getting worse year by year.  The ability to detect high frequency is the first to go, followed by volume in general.

The culprits are headphones, killer amps, and the proliferation of power tools and other loud home appliances that our grandparents didn't have. 

I find it astounding that no one seems to care.  Unless you're living in a cave or the White House, you would know, for example, that condoms can prevent pregnancy and many sexually transmitted diseases.  Yet there is no similar awareness about (and free distribution of) earplugs to protect hearing.

Fighting the problem

The government seems lukewarm on hearing protection.  Again, unless you're living in a cave or the White House, you know that soldiers in Iraq long lacked body armor.  What is not known so well is that they still lack earplugs and instructions on why and how to use them.  As a result, combat soldiers in Iraq are 50 times more likely to suffer permanent hearing damage compared to non-combat soldiers, according to a December 2005 study in American Journal of Audiology.  Perhaps a quarter or more soldiers returning home have hearing loss, although there's no official statistics because the Army didn't bother conducting hearing tests beforehand.

Closer to home, the real scandal about illegal workers is not that they're stealing American jobs but that they are allowed to work without protections, such as earplugs.  Pass by any construction site, and you will see that sometimes even the jackhammer operator, let alone the workers encircling him, has no ear protection.

There are rules.  The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health guidelines state that workers shouldn't be exposed to 110 decibels for more than 1.5 minutes during a daily 8-hour shift. 

When you're not working, though, you are apparently allowed to be pummeled at a rock concert for two hours by sound that is about 10 times louder than this, at 120 decibels or higher.

Famously losing their hearing

To no surprise, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry, the two surviving members of The Who, which made the Guinness Book of World Records back in the 1970s as being the loudest rock group, have profound hearing loss [Townshend has publicized his problem as being caused by headphones].  So too do many older rockers, only now admitting it.  And I bet you yourself have some degree of loss.

I recommend anyone over age 35 to get a hearing test just to understand how much hearing you may have lost.  There are tests on the Internet.  They might not be entirely accurate, but they will give you a sense of what your frequency cutoff is.  Mine was around 15 kilohertz in my left ear and 16 kilohertz in my right ear.  I could hear the Mosquito MP3, though, likely because it is not a true 17-khz wave. 

The fact that my left ear is a little worse is evidence of noise-induced hearing loss.  This is the ear I use most often on the telephone, because I dial with my right hand, and this is the one that gets punished with loud dial tones and surprise fax sounds.

An audiologist confirmed my hearing loss, even though I haven't worn headphones or sought out loud noise.  The test was a real eye-opener—and ear-closer.

Can you hear the ring tone? Find out here.


Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books “Bad Medicine” and “Food At Work.” Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LIveScience.

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