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When you think about public health concerns, your mind might immediately go to communicable diseases. Particularly as we learn about COVID-19, we have become aware of the ways that viruses, bacterial infections, and other diseases spread through large groups of people.
Other important public health concerns include risks of injuries and access to healthy drinking water. The Gates Foundation has undertaken the vital task of improving water supplies in the developing world with the goal of saving lives across the globe.
However, did you know that your smartphone might be a public health concern? Although the device itself is not a health risk, one of its functions has the potential to be part of a worldwide public health crisis: sound.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has taken up the task of promoting hearing health as one of its major initiatives, and that should give us a sense of the seriousness of the risk. With the workgroup “Make Listening Safe,” the WHO has demonstrated that young people are reporting much higher rates of hearing loss than the generations of young people who came before them. With a spike in hearing loss like this, the Make Listening Safe workgroup is devising public awareness campaigns at the global level to help curtail new cases.
Global Population Risks
Young people are not the only ones at risk of hearing loss, of course. Although higher rates of youth hearing loss are a great concern for the workgroup—with 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults at risk of hearing loss due to recreational sound coming from headphones, earbuds, and noisy music venues—young people are not the only concern.
Overall, 466 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss, amounting to about 6.1% of the world’s population. This number prompts the workgroup to pursue public health measures across the lifespan for people to reduce their risk of hearing loss and to make treatment available to those who have already experienced it.
Among those who have disabling hearing loss a full 16% can be attributed to workplace hearing damage, so another branch of their advocacy has to do with regulation and enforcement of noise restrictions in the workplace.
Understanding the Guidelines
In the hearing health community there is a general rule that experiencing sound at or above 85 decibels for 8 hours at a time is sufficient to cause permanent hearing damage. This general guideline has been used at workplaces to set the standards for hearing protection, as well as the duration of tasks that can be performed at noisy workstations.
Although the guideline is clear, there is wide variation in worldwide enforcement. Even in countries where the regulations are clear and enforcement should occur, employers are able to skirt the standards in many ways. Other national contexts do not have official regulations regarding sound exposure, and enforcement may not be funded and staffed at a level to protect the public. One of the Make Listening Safe workgroup’s priorities is to ensure that the guidelines are clear and are adopted widely.
Protect Your Hearing
One of the challenges facing the WHO workgroup is to encourage people to regulate their own use of loud devices. Although working through governments and employers is one tactic to reduce exposure to noise, use of personal leisure devices requires self-regulation when it comes to the volume and duration of use.
For this reason, public awareness campaigns are an important health strategy to make sure that the general population knows the risk of exposure to loud devices. Whether headphones, earbuds, or PA systems, access to streaming media has made it possible to play music and other audio all day long at punishing volumes. Letting the public know the risk they encounter is the first step in the direction of prevention.
Other measures to limit leisure noise exposure include working with manufacturers of devices to change the thresholds of volume and to promote the use of apps for self-regulation. Particularly when it comes to young people, it is important to educate parents and other adults about the risks of allowing children and young people to use these devices for too long at too loud a volume. We are responsible for helping one another protect the hearing of the next generation!
If you have concerns about your hearing abilities, contact us today to learn more about our comprehensive hearing health services.