Three years ago, when the noise level at the American Airlines Arena shrieked to a deafening level, fan Adele Sandberg covered her ears and winced. Intent on the fast-paced court action, she didn’t yet know about the growing danger of hearing loss. She didn’t know yet that preventing it would become her passion.
But with the cheers and the loudspeaker announcements still echoing in her ears, Sandberg returned home to North Miami Beach and began researching hearing loss. What she discovered shocked her: One of five U.S. teenagers suffers from some form of noise-induced hearing loss by the age of 19. And more than 50 percent of U.S. high school students have reported at least one symptom of hearing loss, such as ringing in the ears.
The problem is getting worse. One study concluded that the proportion of second graders with some form of hearing loss had doubled in the past 10 years, while the proportion of eighth graders had quadrupled.
“We have an epidemic of hearing loss, and I don’t say this lightly,” said Sandberg, 70. “A lot of people suffer from this but don’t know it because it’s so gradual. And once it happens, it’s irreversible.”
That’s the bad news. The good news is that noised-induced hearing loss is preventable — and Sandberg is on a mission to help stop it by educating the public, primarily students.
Soon after her ringing-ears sporting experience, Sandberg launched a nonprofit group. The Ear Peace Save Your Hearing Foundation’s goal is to motivate young people to protect their hearing. But Sandberg also hopes to deliver her message to people of all ages.
“I will go anywhere they’ll have me — churches, synagogues, band practices,” she said. “I’m so passionate about it because it’s preventable. We can stop this by education and by changing behavior.”
At a recent demonstration to Miami-Dade Public Schools music educators, Sandberg went through a shortened version of her PowerPoint presentation, playing first a low, muffled song as if it were being heard by a person with hearing loss and then playing the same song as if it were heard by someone with normal hearing. A murmur of recognition rose from the crowd.
Pointing to a diagram of the ear, she went on to explain the mechanics of human hearing and then, using pipe cleaners to represent the 18,000 human inner-ear hair cells, showed what happens to those sensitive hearing receptors when they are exposed to loud party music.
“These are damaged hair cells and they can’t be fixed,” she explained, pointing to the twisted pipe cleaners. “This is what permanent hearing loss looks like.”
Some of the music educators, many of whom listen to loud instrument-playing as part of their job, laughed nervously. Reginald White, a music teacher at Earlington Heights Elementary School, shook his head.
“Being a former rock band member, I’ve noticed hearing loss in myself, but I just didn’t know how bad it was, especially with young people,” he said. He vowed to use the pipe cleaner exercise with his students.
Bob Graham K-8 Education Center music teacher Audrey Carballo suggested that Sandberg’s workshops be mandatory. She attended one two years ago and has used the information to educate her students ever since.
“I think it’s critical for every single teacher to know about this, no matter the discipline you teach,” Carballo said. “If we can educate the student at a young enough age, we can make them aware of the precious, precious gift of hearing.”
One of the students who has taken the message to heart is Ben Manley, a sophomore at Krop High School. He suffered some hearing loss in middle school when a friend playfully blasted music in his right ear. A trumpet player since seventh grade, he learned more about hearing loss when Sandberg delivered a presentation at Highland Oaks Middle School.
Ben now makes it a point to stay across the practice room from the noisiest band section. He never raises the volume on his iPod beyond one bar, and he makes presentations about hearing loss to other students.
“A lot of my friends just blast the music away and they don’t know how bad it can be,” Ben said. “I keep telling them they don’t want to lose their hearing the rest of their lives for something they’re doing now.”
Sandberg, whose eldest child is Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In and COO of Facebook, offers three simple solutions to prevent noise-induced hearing loss: Walk away; use protection; turn it down. In the free curriculum packet teachers receive when taking the Ear Peace workshop, protective earplugs that filter too-loud noises are included.
“I think people are starting to get the message,’ she said, “but they don’t understand how loud is too loud.”
And some everyday noises are actually too loud. Typical speech comes in at 65 decibels. (Decibels are a measurement of sound pressure.) At 85, the level of busy city traffic, an adult can listen safely for about eight hours. By 115 decibels of a rock concert or a leaf blower, the noise level can induce permanent hearing loss within 30 seconds.
These decibels levels are for adults. For children the sound pressure entering their shorter ear canal tends to be stronger, and therefore permanent hearing loss can occur in even less time.
One of Ear Peace’s projects is to encourage people, particularly parents and teens, to download an app on their phone that measures decibels. Sandberg recommends the 99-cent SPL Meter from Studio Six Digital for the iPhone. Ear Peace is also launching an Adopt-a-Band project that will give each student in a participating band reusable filtered earplugs after the band teacher participates in a training workshop and teaches students how to protect their hearing.
These earplugs, Sandberg noted, “allow for the enjoyment of music while decreasing harmful decibel levels.”
Awareness, she added, is the first step in changing people’s behavior. “I ask students and teachers, ‘What would your life be like if you couldn’t hear certain noises?’ That at least gets them thinking.”
For more information, visit www.earpeacefoundation.org.