Originally published on “Matters” by Designit
The world is becoming louder and hearing loss is on the rise. We tracked a day in the life of unhealthy sound and came up with concrete ideas to improve our lives.
We limit red meat to avoid cardiovascular disease, sweets and carbs to avoid getting diabetes, and smoking to ward off cancer. But we’ve overlooked a critical danger: sound pollution. Our exposure to unhealthy sound takes place daily, and the damage it causes is often irreparable. The problem isn’t about going to a rock concert or turning our headphones up, it’s about recognizing and mitigating the impact of noise in our daily lives.
Sound pollution not only affects our hearing abilities, but also our general health. The World Health Organization (WHO) asserts that hearing loss is on the rise, which will strain our healthcare system and increase social isolation. Europeans are estimated to lose a total of 61,000 years of healthy life annually through noise-associated heart disease, and they suffer about 3,000 deaths. Traffic noise alone creates chronic stress, which turns up the volume on the health issues - cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, and stroke - that we work so hard to avoid. Elevated adrenaline and cortisol - our body’s stress hormones - also affect our ability to sleep and to learn. Add to that the fact that 1.1 billion young people are at risk of hearing loss. The evidence is scary enough that we at Designit felt we had to address it.
So we gathered a team of researchers and designers to explore and track the soundscape and exposure to dangerous sound in our own daily lives. Then we asked ourselves how we could change our unhealthy sound habits. We ended up with four sound eluding concepts and a prototype to help people become more aware of the dangers and to minimize our own daily exposure to unhealthy sound. For context: Sound is measured in units called decibels - zero is silence, conversation is 60dB, and that shrill ambulance siren is 120dB.
8am: Institutions of play are also institutions of noise
For most people, their day breaks way before 8am, but for parents, 8am is drop-off time at the local day care or elementary school. For many kids, their time spent in institutions is (mostly) time spent having fun or learning among friends.
But too often, institutions of play can morph into institutions of noise, especially when noise levels average between 75 and 81dB in a school environment. It’s concerning, when you consider the fact that prolonged exposure to >85dB raising the risk of hearing loss considerably, and kids are in institutions all day.
We believe that engaging with children is the best way forward. We wanted to come up with a concept that would engage young children playfully instead of making them afraid. We knew someone had tried a red flashing light that made a loud noise when the classroom got too loud. It frightened the children. Our idea is a playful “friend,” such as a teddy bear, that tracks sound and reacts gently when noise levels are too high. It’s a low-key way to nudge unhealthy sound away while making “play” the focus of kids’ attention.