The holidays are right around the corner, and that means the sounds of carolers singing, Salvation Army bells ringing, and, unfortunately, the potentially damaging noise from many popular children’s toys. Most unsuspecting, well-meaning parents and family members are not aware that the gifts they purchase for their children this holiday season could emit sounds in excess of 120 decibels (dB), the level of a jackhammer or ambulance siren.
Fortunately, for the last fourteen years, the Sight and Hearing Association (SHA), along with research partners at the University of Minnesota, has published a list of noisy toys. This year, the group collected 24 popular toys right from local store shelves and tested the noise levels they produce. The verdict? Nineteen of the 24 toys (almost 80%) produced sounds louder than 100 dB (the approximate noise level of a snowmobile or motorcycle).
How Damaging is the Noise?
By now, most of us are aware that noise exposure is bad for our ears, but how bad is it? One guideline we could use to judge this would be the occupational noise standard set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH is part of the Centers for Disease Control and publishes national standards for acceptable noise levels in the workplace. These federal guidelines require that ear plugs or other hearing protection be worn if noise levels reach 85 dB or higher. In fact, the higher the noise level, the less time you can be exposed to it and remain safe from hearing damage. Most hearing experts, as well as NIOSH, agree that sounds at the 100 dB level (above which 19 of the tested toys fall) can begin to cause damage to the ears within 15 minutes or less.
While noise is harmful to anyone’s ears, children are at particular risk. Children’s ear canals are much smaller than adults’, so the level of sound pressure is increased, causing them to be more sensitive to loud sounds. They also tend to play with their toys close to their ears, making the sounds louder. That’s why SHA tests the offending toys directly at the ear, as well as at a distance of 10 inches (approximately arm’s length).
And remember, loud sounds harm much more than just a child’s ears. During the critical years of speech and language development, untreated hearing loss can impair or delay a child’s ability to speak and comprehend what others are saying. Hearing loss in children often has a lasting impact on their learning and social interactions.
So Who’s on the Naughty List?
Make sure Santa doesn’t bring your child the toy at the top of SHA’s Noisy Toy list this year: Disney’s Cars 2 Shake ‘N Go Finn McMissile (from Fisher Price). The toy promises to “recreate the excitement of the big race” with “engine sounds and phrases from the movie.” What you’ll really get when you shake this car are sound levels topping out at 124 dB – a level that causes risk of hearing damage virtually instantly.
Other toys near the top of the list included the Disney Princess Play-a-Sound Book “Follow Your Dreams” at 118 dB (and recommended for children as young as 18 months) and the Hot Wheels Super Stunt Rat Bomb at 116 dB. Review the entire list here: Noisy Toys 2011.
How Can I Protect my Children?
While the toys highlighted on this list are shockingly loud, there are certainly many more toys on the market that have the potential to cause hearing loss. So how do you protect your kids?
First, test the toys in the store before you purchase them. If the sound seems loud, shrill, or hurts your ears, steer clear! If sounds loud to you, it will be even more damaging to your child’s sensitive hearing. Next, consider using a sound level meter to test your children’s toys. Don’t have one? Sound level meter apps are available for most smartphones – read more about these apps to measure noise levels. Finally, remember that prolonged exposure to noise increases the risk of hearing damage. So, limit your children’s time play time with louder toys.
While toy manufacturers are required to follow certain noise guidelines, most experts agree that the current standards are not stringent enough to ensure that your child’s hearing is not at risk. It’s important to educate yourself to make sure your family is protected this holiday season.