When medical anthropologists consider the impacts of technology on human health, we envision life-saving drugs, surgeries, or diagnostic tools to detect disease. Technology in these ways can prove instrumental– quite literally — in improving patients’ health outcomes. However, it is equally important to think about the ways in which technology can diminish health, particularly in an age where the global spread of technology deserves the attention of clinicians and anthropologists alike.
This is the nature of the concern posed by the latest World Health Organization (WHO) report, released on February 27th 2015. After studying noise exposure in middle and high income countries and among participants ages 14-35, WHO officials stated that an estimated 1.1 billion people are at risk for hearing loss due to “recreational noise.” This includes music piped through headphones and noise experienced at entertainment venues. Exposure to high decibels of sound is not itself harmful: for instance, hearing a heavy pot fall from the counter and crash onto the floor would not cause hearing damager. Rather, the extended length of exposure to such loud noises is what proves detrimental. The WHO defines dangerous levels of noise exposure as 85 decibels for eight hours or 100 decibels for 15 minutes. The report notes that a rock concert that lasts for two hours may cause temporary hearing loss or lead to other symptoms such as a ringing sensation in the ears, and regular extended exposure may lead to more permanent damage.
What does the WHO recommend to address this global health concern? The report singles out teenagers and implores them to take noise management into their own hands: purchasing noise-canceling headphones, taking “sound breaks” if extended exposure to loud sounds is unavoidable, or wearing ear plugs to loud music venues. This places the responsibility to manage noise exposure on young people rather than on their families and caregivers. Likewise, the report suggests that patrons of entertainment venues like clubs and bars that feature loud music and sounds should limit their time spent in such environments. There are no extensive recommendations listed in the report for those who work in loud venues, other than limiting shifts to eight hours to shorten exposure.
From a medical anthropological standpoint, many of the factors in sound environments are tangled with social life. For instance, in many developed countries, concerts are an important social gathering place for young people. Teens may not avoid these events, but if they follow the WHO recommendations and wear earplugs to the venue, they may be ostracized by their peers for looking out of place. Likewise, neighborhood bars and clubs are important hubs of activity for locals, and avoiding them may come at the cost of social isolation. As technologies spread both to developing and developed countries, the ways that people integrate audio technologies, new entertainment venues, and popular music into their lives is worth considering given the impacts of these tools, sounds, and social spaces on hearing health.
To read the WHO’s news release, click here: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/ear-care/en/