When I was young and single and doing my best to play without getting pregnant, I was intensely concerned about protection. Little did I know that in my 60s I would again feel concerned about protection, but that I would be protecting something else.
My ears. I admit: not as exciting or fun, but important.
The most recent example occurred last week, after I agreed to help our contractor with a small repair job at our cabin in Lotus. He needed an unskilled assistant (me) to hold the vacuum to catch dust while he scored bathroom tile with a high speed drill in preparation for removing it.
ÒThe drill is loud,Ó he warned me, and I knew that in the confined space of our bathroom, it would be especially noisy.
ÒIÕve got earplugs,Ó I said.
On the day of the job, he wore a headset with ear protection and I wore my earplugs, but 10 minutes into the project, one of my earplugs fell out. Suddenly I could hear the drill at full intensity, high-pitched, and screeching, and I felt genuinely panicked until I could put down the vacuum and re-insert my earplug.
How many decibels had I been exposed to?
The Website of the nonprofit Center for Hearing and Communication tells us that Òthe louder the sound, the less time required before hearing will be affectedÓ and that anything that leaves a ringing in your ears or requires you to shout to be heard by a person three feet away from you is dangerously loud.
Sound is measured in decibels, a logarithmic scale with the level of perceived loudness doubling every 10 decibels. Anything over 85 decibels threatens your hearing, especially upon long exposure. Sound in rock concerts, movie theaters, fireworks shows and video arcades often measures 100 decibels, and sometimes much more. Even some childrenÕs toys emit sounds that are way too loud.
One of the purposes of the 15th Annual Noise Awareness Day, coming up on April 28, is to educate people about the danger of noise. This is difficult to do because hearing loss is like global warming: The path toward trouble begins way before actual disaster hits and most people choose to ignore the problem.
The only reason I began to protect my ears earlier than other people is because there is congenital deafness in my family. Watching my grandmother, my great-aunt and then my father struggle with hearing loss was the equivalent of living next to Glacier National Park where last week it was announced that 12 named glaciers are now so small – -less than 25 acres — hat the U.S. Geological Service no longer considers them glaciers.
I knew there was reason for me to worry about becoming hard of hearing, and when my hearing tested below normal in my early 50s, I began to fear complete deafness. To my relief, my hearing hasnÕt worsened much since then, because IÕve been cautious Ñ and lucky.
During that same period, IÕve watched a lot of friends and relatives of baby boomer age acquire hearing aids. Unlike eyeglasses, hearing aids donÕt restore your abilities to Ònormal,Ó but they are much improved over the days when my father refused to wear them (Òtoo uncomfortable!Ó).
The greatest pain now is in the wallet. In fact, this is something to get angry about: High-tech hearing aids are so expensive and so rarely covered by insurance that they are out of reach for many of the estimated 28 million Americans, about 1 in 10, with hearing loss.
I do see some signs that the younger generation is smarter about their ears than we were. For example, last week when my daughter was staying at a noisy conference hotel, she assured me that sheÕd be able to sleep Òbecause I brought my ear plugs.Ó My son wears ear protection while playing his trombone in a band. (Or at least he did while he still lived with me.)
And yet, not long ago, I was at an airport when the security alarms went off, horrifyingly loud, to the point of pain, really, and most people looked around and listened for an entire two minutes without covering their ears.
In my book, this is almost the equivalent of unprotected sex.
Are people afraid theyÕre going to look funny putting their hands over their ears?
As a new grandparent waiting for my grandsonÕs first words, as an older person learning to play guitar, and as a hospice volunteer leaning towards my patients to catch their soft, end-of-life words, I want very badly to hear Ñ and yet I know that I miss things. I donÕt want more hearing loss for myself, and I donÕt want it for anyone else.
So even if you donÕt see a lot of media reports about Noise Awareness Day, declare it for yourself.
Keep earplugs handy. Live quiet. Live well.
Marion Franck is a part-time resident of El Dorado County, with her primary residence in Davis. She writes a weekly column for the Davis Enterprise. Her column appears occasionally in the Mountain Democrat.