"The best advice I can offer is to leave the fireworks to the professionals and sit at a comfortable distance from the display, where you can enjoy the colors and lights, but not expose yourself and your family to loud noises," says Sergei Kochkin, PhD, BHI's executive director. "To protect your hearing, make sure you're wearing ear plugs and that they're securely in place before the show begins. And be sure to keep them in for the entire show."
Disposable ear plugs, made of foam or silicone, are typically available at local pharmacies. They're practical because you still can hear music and the conversation of those around you when you have them in your ears. But when they fit snuggly, they're effective in adequately blocking out dangerously loud sounds.
Noise is one of the most common causes of hearing loss. Ten million Americans have already suffered irreversible hearing damage from noise;and 30 million are exposed to dangerous noise levels each day.
According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, consumption of fireworks in the United States has risen dramatically over the past decade, from 152.2 million pounds in 2000 to 213.9 million pounds in 2009. As more and more Americans come into contact with fireworks, it becomes increasingly important that people follow sound safety measures, including the use of ear protection.
The Dangers and Signs of Loud Noise
Loudness is measured in decibels, with silence measuring at 0 dB. Any noise above 85 dB is considered unsafe. Most firecrackers produce sounds starting at 125 dB-presenting the risk of irreversible ear damage. Repeated exposure to loud noise, over an extended period of time, presents serious risks to hearing health as well. If you have to shout over the noise to be heard by someone within arm's length, the noise is probably in the dangerous range. Here are other warning signs:
- You have pain in your ears after leaving a noisy area.
- You hear ringing or buzzing (tinnitus) in your ears immediately after exposure to noise.
- You suddenly have difficulty understanding speech after exposure to noise;you can hear people talking but can't understand them.
"Prevention is so critical to preserving our hearing, especially for children who are at highest risk for noise-induced hearing loss," adds Kochkin. "So make sure your family and friends fully enjoy the holiday festivities and celebrate smart. Leave the fireworks to the professionals. Stay a safe distance away. And pack the earplugs. Remember: close to 40 percent of hearing loss is preventable with proper protection."
Protecting Our Hearing
We hear sound when delicate hair cells in our inner ear vibrate, creating nerve signals that the brain understands as sound. But just as we can overload an electrical circuit, we also can overload these vibrating hair cells. Loud noise damages these delicate hair cells, resulting in sensorineural hearing loss and often tinnitus (ringing of the ears). The cells that are the first to be damaged or die are those that vibrate most quickly-those that allow us to hear higher-frequency sounds clearly, like the sounds of birds singing and children speaking.
The best way to protect hearing is to avoid excessively loud noise. When you know you'll be exposed to loud noises, like fireworks, wear ear protection. Every day you can protect your hearing by keeping down the volume on earbuds, stereos, and televisions. And you can teach children to quickly plug their ears with their fingers when they're suddenly and unexpectedly bombarded by loud sirens, jack hammers, and other loud sounds.
Kochkin warns that people should not personally use firecrackers to celebrate the 4th of July, since one explosion in close proximity could cause permanent hearing loss, not to mention bodily harm. There is a reason why fireworks are illegal in many states, and that is because of their inherent danger.