JACKSON, Miss. – The first thing you think of when it comes to firework safety is burns, but what about your ears?
Your child’s hearing may be just as endangered, experts at the University of Mississippi Medical Center say, just one fireworks exposure close to a person’s ears can cause irreversible damage.
Noise levels are measured in decibels. According to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, sounds louder than 85 decibels have potential to cause permanent hearing loss.
Fireworks three feet away can produce 150 decibels or greater. Firearms and jet engines come in at comparable levels and the maximum for some personal listening devices is 110 decibels, the association says.
“One loud, intense noise can cause damage, and that damage is permanent,” said Dr. Christopher Spankovich, a UMMC audiologist and associate professor of otolaryngology and communicative sciences. “But prevention is key. We can reduce risk by limiting exposure to loud sounds, maintaining safe distances, and using hearing protection devices.”
Close exposure to noise caused by fireworks can be similar to a gun discharging near someone’s ears, he said. “When you’re shooting a gun, it can be a brief exposure – three milliseconds – but very intense,” Spankovich said. “A single exposure can cause damage.”
The potential for hearing damage often is overlooked, however, by parents whose worries are focused on keeping their children’s hands, face and head safe from fireworks-induced burns. Fireworks users of all ages should create a space of at least four meters between them and the explosive devices, and they should always use hearing protection such as earplugs or sound-blocking earmuffs, Spankovich said.
“A firework can generate a lot of noise,” said Dr. Mark Reed, professor of otolaryngology and pediatrics and chief of the Division of Pediatric Otolaryngology. “And, you can have a double whammy. If it’s close enough to cause hearing loss, it’s probably going to give you a burn.”
Attending a fireworks show or casually observing someone shoot them in your neighborhood likely won’t affect your hearing, Reed said. “It’s the accidental firework that goes off near your ear that will get you in trouble,” he said. “It could be like a gunshot, or any loud brief noise.”
In his field, Spankovich said, “we see a lot of young people with evidence of hearing loss.” A cross-section study found that 16 percent of U.S. children, or about five million, are in that group. “The louder a sound is, the shorter the duration that you can safely be exposed to it,” he said.