Ear Plugs and Us

If you want less noise in your life, ear plugs will help. But what type, you ask?  You can go to your local hardware store or drugstore and find a wide range of types –  foam, wax, silicone, plastic, over-ear, in-ear.  And they all say wondrous things about their efficacy.

Without getting too complicated, the goal is to reduce your exposure to decibels (sound waves).  Watch this video to get a quick overview of the loudness (i.e. the decibel level) of common ‘noises’. Damage to your hearing comes from exposure to high decibel levels.

Level of noise in dB(A)               Maximum daily exposure time

85                                                       8 hours

91                                                        2 hours

97                                                       30 minutes

103                                                     7 minutes

(courtesy of Wikipedia)

But what sounds reach these levels? If you go here you will see a list of noise sources and their decibel levels and allowable length of exposure. It is a bit scary to see how loud most things around us are.

Ear plugs are especially useful to people exposed to excessively noisy devices or environments (80 dB or more). But even those of us who are just exposed to daily noise levels might want earplugs – for both comfort and for hearing protection.

The key is how many decibels they ‘cut’.  And how they do so. Most commercial earplugs help block out various amounts of noise. There is a fair amount of “science” information – but the key is –  reducing your exposure. Thus, in some ways, anything is better than nothing.

But what most people experience is that commercial earplugs block out ALL levels of sound, and you hear a muffled, distorted sound.

A better option is what are called attenuating earplugs. These are often used by musicians who want to decrease their exposure, but still be able to hear their music clearly.  There are various types of these plugs available commercially.  Or, you can get a customized pair made by an audiologist.

As Wikipedia reminded me, people have been plugging their ears since the time of Homer. Remember Ulysses and his ten year journey home from the Trojan War?  He plugged his sailors’ ears with wax, and then had them tie him, ears wide open, to the mast of the ship so that he could experience the singing of the Sirens but would be unable to be lured to his death by their sweet songs.

(Waterhouse, “Ulysses and the Sirens”, 1891.)

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