[Originally published at silencity.com]
In a 2019 article titled “Why is there no cure for tinnitus?” the authors looked at whether studies had identified if participants have a history of significant noise exposure that could cause decreased sound tolerance, like hyperacusis or tinnitus. A cure for noise-induced tinnitus and hyperacusis, the authors noted, could be very different from a cure for tinnitus or hyperacusis from other causes, like aging or head injury.
The article shows that it’s important for research to identify noise sub-types when evaluating potential cures. The underlying hearing health damage for sudden high level noise like acoustic trauma is different than damage from chronic moderate level noise over time. That is, the cure for noise-induced tinnitus and hyperacusis from bomb blasts or firearms is likely different than the cure for noise-induced tinnitus and hyperacusis from being exposed to unhealthy noise at school, on public transit systems, or at noisy workplaces.
High level public noise pollution in daily life can impact hearing health of all ages from babies to elders. Fortunately, the solution for tinnitus and hyperacusis caused by public noise pollution is not a cure–it’s better than a cure, as the solution is preventing the noise from happening in the first place.
How? There must be noise control for human manufactured unhealthy noise sources like personal listening devices, aircraft, road vehicles, railways, consumer products, and even MRI machines. There is no need for a cure if the source noise is never manufactured to be loud enough to cause decreased sound tolerance in the first place.
Controlling the source of noise would have other positive effects. Moderate levels of public noise pollution can significantly affect the quality of life for people with tinnitus and hyperacusis by causing poor sleep and making it significantly harder to understand speech in the presence of background noise. This, in turn, can increase stress levels, making it harder to cope and potentially interferring with available treatment.
Noise control is not impossible. Protecting the general public from unhealthy noise must cost less than the combined healthcare costs of diagnosing and treating tinnitus, hyperacusis, and other hearing health damage. And new noise prevention materials are constantly being invented. Examples include an acoustic material invented by Boston University that silences or cancels out 94% of sound waves without blocking light or airflow. A Canadian company is making noise barriers that absorb noise and air pollution. Quiet electric passenger planes could be in regional operation by 2021.
But nothing will change about public noise pollution until authorities and decision makers make health and hearing health a priority. This includes real time city and transportation noise mapping and reporting to identify locations with unhealthy noise. Noise prevention and control is necessary to protect public health and it should be mandatory.
Dr. Daniel Fink describes implications for acoustic engineering and design considerations for structures and enforced noise emission regulations and restrictions. Examples could include muffling school and public hand dryers, hour restrictions or night curfews at airports, quieter leaf blowers, quiet defaults on consumer products like microwaves with an option to turn on audible alerts, quiet solutions to replace vehicle back-up beeps, or preventing new imposed noise from delivery drones or noisy audible vehicle alert systems on electric cars. New technology needs to be quietly accessible for everyone.
Preventing public noise pollution won’t stop all cases of tinnitus and hyperacusis, but it could stop millions of cases around the world. Safe soundscapes without unhealthy noise are best for everyone from newborns to elders. And prevention is always better than trying to treat the problem or find a cure for noise-induced hearing damage after it occurs.