Most of us do not think about our hearing when it comes to going out to various music events, but let us not forget that the bigger the production, the louder and more strenuous the sound is on our ears. Sometimes you don't even notice how loud a place is until you step away and have a foggy ringing in your ears for the next few hours. Hell, I was having such a hard time catching something someone next to me says that I went to a eyes, nose and ear doctor, just to make sure I was okay. Luckily, he said I had dog-like hearing and suffered from selective hearing (LOL! to the hubs).
Now I am more cautious since I plan on working in music for as long as I can breath and spent some time looking into affordable ear plugs that allowed me to still enjoy the music I listened to without taking away from the sound quality like generic foam plugs. Note that no consumer level ear plug can compare to that of a professional grade custom made musicians ear plugs, but then again who has got $100+ lying around?
Etymotic have a wide selection of consumer level and professional grade ear plugs available and were kind enough to send me a pair of their ER20XS ear plugs that retail at $19.95 (on their website) to try out and for the last year and half these are all I have been using. I have very awkward ear-holes so I generally have to have small sized plugs to fit into my ears. They worked well at keeping down the dB, but still allowed me to hear the bass and different channels of instrumentation. They also come with a string that joins the two plugs (for loss prevention) and a cute little key chain case (which I have used to harbor my stash more than my earplugs, but shh!).
To emphasize the importance of hearing loss prevention, I took the time to speak with Dr. Patty Johnson, A.uD, Direct of Audiology at Etymotic and Rick Carlson, Customer Service Supervisor about their product's design and how they work to help us keep hearing 'til our dying days!
Magnetic: At what dB level do our ears start to accumulate damage after prolonged exposure?
Patty Johnson: Noise-induced hearing damage stems from volume plus exposure time. The NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health) standard dictates that sound levels of 85dB are considered safe for 8 hours of exposure time. This standard uses a 3dB exchange rate: meaning for every 3dB that the noise levels increase, the amount of acceptable exposure time is cut in half. For example:
85dB – safe for 8 hours
88dB – safe for 4 hours
91dB – safe for 2 hours, etc.
These are the NIOSH recommended exposure limits. They recommend limiting exposure to 85 dB noise to no more than 8 hours per day, 5 days per week (40 hours per week). Likewise, exposure at 88 should be limited to 4 hours daily, 5 days a week (20 hours weekly), 91 dB should be limited to 2 hours daily, 5 days per week (10 hours weekly), and so on. At 100 dB, NIOSH recommends limiting exposure 15 minutes, 5 days per week (1 hr, 15 minutes weekly). Exposure to sound above these limits/durations per week, over a 40-year span, puts an individual at increased risk of developing noise-induced hearing damage.
MM: How long is too long when it comes to exposure to high dB levels?
PJ: The TIME component is what throws most people. You will hear and see people saying that exposures of 85 dB or greater than 85 dB are damaging. That’s not necessarily true. It can put you at increased risk for hearing damage depending on the duration of the exposure, how often the exposure occurs, and cumulative lifetime exposure. To say anything at or above 85 dB or even 100 dB is harmful is incorrect. If you’re sitting at the symphony, a passage may be loud (like 105 dB) for a second—but only a second. Is that harmful? No. If you’re exposed to that level for long periods of time, repeatedly, is it harmful? Most definitely.
By the time you reach 100dB (easily possible at many live music events), your allowed exposure is about 15 minutes. At that level, a 2-hour concert means you are getting 8x your allowable noise exposure dose. It is important to keep in mind that noise exposure is cumulative. The above standard assumes that you are spending the rest of your day in relative quiet.
Let’s say you cut your lawn without wearing earplugs during the afternoon, then went to a rock concert at night without hearing protection, both of these events would contribute to your allowable daily exposure.
MM: In your experience, what dB level are most music events?
PJ: While it depends on the event, I’ve personally measured concerts anywhere between 100-110dB, not including peaks that might occur from increased audience participation, pyrotechnics, etc. Some concerts can very well reach 120dB.
MM: What are some other damages that can occur aside from hearing loss if exposed to large dB levels for a long period of time?
PJ: The most noticeable symptom of damage is tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and “muffled hearing” (temporary threshold shift—which means when a person has a hearing test, it’s temporarily worse. The effects of the noise, however, are not temporary). Over the long term tinnitus and hearing loss can become permanent. Other injuries aren’t reported as often but they do occur: some individuals develop hyperacusis (altered sensitivity to sound, in which even average speech seems to be unbearably loud) and some develop diplacusis (pitch perception problems).
MM: How do your earplugs help prevent, potential hearing loss when exposed to loud dB levels?
Rick Carlson: Our earplugs function a bit differently than most on the market. All of our hearing protection products are designed to reduce sound relatively equally across frequencies and reduce the risk of noise-induced hearing damage. This allows you to be in potentially harmful environments, such as a rock concert, for a longer period of time than you could safely be without hearing protection.
For example, our EtyPLUGS and ER20XS when properly sealed will provide an approximate 20dB reduction. Let’s say the event you are attending is averaging 105dB. By wearing the earplugs, you’ve now taken a situation where your ears are only safe for less than five minutes and turned it into an environment that you can enjoy for eight hours.
MM: What is the mechanics of most earplugs and what make yours unique?
RC: Many earplugs are designed to block out as much noise as possible, particularly those that are made of foam. For some situations, this may be the user’s best option for protection from extreme noise. However, earplugs that are designed to provide maximum attenuation will also muffle sounds. If you are a musician or attending a music event, this will greatly hamper your enjoyment of the performance. By reducing sounds evenly across frequencies, our earplugs allow you to hear sounds clearly, including mids and highs, without muffling.
MM: Are these equal to professional grade custom earplugs?
RC: If by professional grade, you mean Musicians Earplugs, EtyPLUGS, and ER20XS earplugs are the next best thing in terms of being a low-cost alternative, and they have been used by many professional musicians all over the world. Custom made Musicians Earplugs offer enhanced comfort (as they are made specifically to fit an individual’s ears) and versatility as they allow the user to select between 9dB, 15dB, and 25dB attenuation values by means of a filter that resides in the custom earmold. Custom earplugs are a larger financial investment (as much as 10x the cost of our ready-fit plugs) but the cost is a very small price to pay to protect your hearing while still enjoying the music. Noise-induced hearing damage is permanent, and nothing can be done to reverse it after it occurs. The best course is always prevention.
MM: Any pros or cons to the Etymotic earplugs?
RC: There are some extreme environments where we recommend maximum protection: top-fuel drag races (as high as 150 to 180 dB) and jackhammers and riveters (as high as 130 dB). The typical duration of these exposures puts people at high risk of noise-induced hearing damage in a very short time. For these situations, double protection (deeply fit foam earplugs + earmuffs) is advised. Firearms typically produce outputs from 140 to 180 dB. Although the blasts are short, the waveform they produce can quickly damage hearing. Our electronic earplugs (GunSportPRO® and EB15LE BlastPLG®) are designed to provide protection from blast and impact noise while also providing enhanced awareness and clear communication.
MM: What are some other things the audience can do aside from wearing earplugs, to help prevent hearing loss when attending music events?
PJ: Limit your exposure time. If you’re a performing musician, educate yourself on the noise levels you are experiencing onstage and in rehearsal. When shopping for earplugs, many customers don’t know how loud their environment is. Thanks to smartphone technology, there are ways for people to get at least a general idea of what kind noise levels they are being exposed to through various apps. While I wouldn’t recommend basing scientific research on them, they can at least give you a reasonable ballpark estimate which can be quite helpful when looking for solutions.