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Commentary: A kind of blast kids can live without

January 21, 2008

Apparently, teen-agers driving around with 5,000-decibel subwoofers in their trunks are not the only ones who don't get this: Many of us are slowly going deaf.

Ten percent of Americans under 70 suffer from noise-induced hearing loss, according to the National Institutes of Health.

It's bad enough that the average 25-year-old carpenter has "50-yearold ears" thanks to noise on the job, and that noise-induced hearing loss is the most common work-related medical problem.

But we're not just talking about adults. The hearing of 13 percent of children ages 6 to 19 already has been affected by noise, according to the medical journal Pediatrics. And the problem is getting worse.

Sound louder than 80 decibels is potentially hazardous, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. If you have to raise your voice to talk to someone within an arm's length, the noise level is probably dangerous.

The damage isn't being caused only by jackhammers, lawn mowers and motorcycles. Consider these unlikely culprits: local museums, schools and Indy Parks facilities.

Arriving at a public pool last summer, my family had not even made it out of the parking lot when my 7-yearold complained about the volume of the music. Indeed, tunes were blasting from speakers posted all around the pool, making it impossible to find a quiet spot.

At an arts event at my son's public elementary school, live musicians entertained families as we ate dinner in the school gym. The music was so loud that my son was sticking his fingers in his ears in between every bite of his hot dog.

When I asked for the volume to be lowered, I got a look that said, "What's your problem?"

Sound volume is not just a matter of personal preference. It's a matter of health. Noise-induced hearing loss is completely preventable. But once hearing is lost, it cannot be restored.

And yet even some of our community's most prestigious child-serving organizations unwittingly are contributing to the premature loss of hearing. Instead, we need these institutions to lead the way in protecting children and educating families about hearing preservation.

This contrast struck me when my family attended an exhibit opening at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis last spring. The blaring music nearly knocked us off our feet as we entered the front door. Yet, at the same time, the museum was heavily promoting its new Health House exhibit, designed to encourage youngsters to pursue healthful lifestyles.

To its credit, the Children's Museum has since pledged to put decibel limits into its contracts for live music at events for children and to purchase equipment to monitor noise levels at such events.

Other organizations ought to follow the museum's lead. The first step to improving hearing preservation is taking the dangers of noise seriously. That means limiting noise levels (sound meters can be had for as little as $30) and responding to concerns with something besides an eye roll or an empty promise. Such efforts are a small price to pay for making sure our kids will still be able to appreciate the tinkle of a fountain or the strains of a violin when they grow up.

So how 'bout it, youth-serving organizations, can you hear me now?

If not, could someone please pass me some kiddie earplugs?



Parent is associate editor of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tparent@ibj.com.
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