By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition
A new study shows that bicycle riders may be at risk of hearing loss, and the culprit is wind noise. The study by Dr. Michael Seidman, an ear specialist who also is a bicycle rider, measured sound levels in a wind tunnel, finding that under many conditions noise level were high enough to cause auditory damage. The measurements need to be replicated on the road, which is a more challenging endeavor.
To me, the important thing to note is how Dr. Seidman conceived of the study: he was out riding with his brother and found that they had to shout at each other to be heard over the wind noise. He states that “OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, says you can be exposed to 85dB of loudness for an eight-hour time period at work. But that does cause noise-induced hearing loss — we know that it does,” he said. “So anything over 85dB causes noise-induced hearing loss.”
I wrote about the 85 dB (actually A-weighted decibels, or dBA) occupational standard in the American Journal of Public Health, in which I noted that 85 dBA “is not a safe noise exposure level for the public.” Humans have difficulty understanding speech if the ambient noise is above 75 decibels. (Technically, those are A-weighted decibels, or dBA. That information is in Figure D-1 in the 1974 EPA “noise levels” monograph.) And Flamme et al. discussed the fact that the auditory injury threshold is only 75-78 dBA.
So, as Dr. Seidman realized, if it sounds too loud, it IS too loud. You don’t need a sound meter to know that. If you have to strain to speak or to hear conversation, the ambient noise is above 75 dBA and your hearing is being damaged.
What should bicyclists do to protect their hearing? Earplugs are an obvious choice, but Dr. Seidman says that they are illogical because “It’s not a good idea to wear earplugs when you ride — you can’t be aware of your surroundings.” He suggests that helmet design could address wind noise (but apparently isn’t offered at this time), but adds that accessories are available, such as AirStreamz Pro Cycling Wind Noise Reducer by Cat-Ears, which are attached to eyeglasses or helmet straps and help to deflect noise.