Guide to delaying ear damage

By Merna Emara
Staff Writer

Lawnmowers, chainsaws, weedwackers, brushcutters and many other power tools expose human ears to loud noise that could cause damage in the long term.

This exposure contributes to ear and hearing damage if done regularly without hearing protection, according to Jackie McCormick, audiologist at the Fort Frances Enhanced Hearing Centre.

McCormick said the threshold they look at for damage to the ears would be 80 to 85 decibels for an average of eight hours. As the sound decibels increase, McCormick said, the time in which you can do the activity decreases.

“With every five decibel increase, you’re cutting the time by half,” McCormick said. “While I do not have an exact decibel value for the lawnmower, if you spend a few hours cutting your grass and not wearing hearing protection, you’re likely doing damage.”

While you will not notice any instant damage to your ears after exposure to loud noises, McCormick said it does accumulate over time and it sometimes takes years for the damage to show up.

If in doubt about the intensity of sound levels, McCormick said the best practice is wearing protection.

“At my house, I just put my ear muffs on the steering wheel of my lawnmower,” McCormick said. “I encourage my patients to do the same.”

McCormick said a common mistake people fall into is assuming they are protecting their ears by putting on earphones and playing music while mowing the lawn or using other tools with high decibels.

“This is very wrong because what they’re doing is they’re turning that music up to be louder than the lawnmower,” McCormick said. “They’re actually doing more damage to their ears than if they just did the grass without anything at all. This is because now they are taking sounds that are louder than 90 decibels because they have to overcome the lawnmower, and they’re putting it within an inch of their eardrum.”

McCormick said unless someone is using noise-cancelling headphones, they are doing more damage to the ears.

Noise-cancelling headphones are a pricey alternative, but a safe option because they cancel out all external noise and just expose the ears to the acceptable level of music without having to increase the volume to drown out external noise.

“Always put on hearing protection when you are doing anything loud even if it is for a short time,” McCormick said. “If you’re unsure whether it’s too loud, always err on the side of caution and wear them anyway. Once you get used to protecting your ears, it’s really uncomfortable to go without. It is a good thing to get used to and then you wouldn’t want to be without it.”

Even when one is not using a power tool and just listening to music, McCormick said if you are one meter away from the person with the headphones and you can still hear the words of the song, that’s too loud. You should barely be able to hear the words of the song, she said.

McCormick added that it is better to turn the volume down and listen to music in the open air.

Hearing protection is crucial from a young age because of the inevitability of hearing loss as people age. McCormick said the peak hearing ability is in adults in their 20s before it starts deteriorating.

McCormick said the ears have hair cells called stereocilia and their job is to detect sound going into the ears. Using the analogy of grass, McCormick said, if someone takes the same path over a lawn, the grass dies over time.

“The same thing happens to the hair cells,” McCormick said. “As we age and as our body gets used, the sound travels over these hair cells. Over time, because sound waves travel the same path within our ear, these little stereocilia start to die because they’re just trampled on. This happens everyday as we are aging.”

McCormick said some people might have a genetic disposition that accelerates their rate of hearing loss depending on their family history.

When hearing loss does occur, McCormick said it can have a huge mental health impact as some elderly people choose to isolate themselves because they have to ask people to repeat themselves all the time.

“They do not want to say the wrong thing or laugh at the wrong time,” McCormick said. “They find that the best way for them to deal with that is to stay home. They end up not going to places and then there’s the process of social withdrawal.”

The other aspect associated with hearing loss is related to a cognitive function in the brain that gets stimulated when sounds come in. When someone has hearing loss, the part of their brain responsible for the pitches is not getting any input because the cells are no longer detecting these sounds, McCormick said.

When it comes to children who may be suffering a form of hearing loss, McCormick said speech is the first red flag. If a parent is the only one who can understand their child, these are all signs that there’s an issue with speech, McCormick added.

However, McCormick said, these cases are rare since all babies are screened for hearing loss at birth and have early treatment.

McCormick said it is best to get a hearing test as a preventative measure because it is better tackling hearing loss in its early stages.