Beltone Blog

Cyclists are potentially at risk for hearing loss

Cycling is a great way to get exercise and enjoy the outdoors. On a sunny, cool day, you could feel like biking for hours on end. 

Posted 08-15-2017 by Nick Eugenis

While cycling is great for your heart and muscles, depending on the landscape of your bike trail, you may be putting your ears at risk. On one of his numerous cycling breaks, American ear surgeon Dr Michael Seidman realized he was shouting constantly at his biking partner, even on a quiet outdoor day.  He decided to investigate whether wind noise could be causing this potential hearing loss.

“I realized we were screaming at each other and I never realized how noisy it was,” Dr Seidman told CyclingTips. “And I’m thinking ‘It’s pristine, silent out here, and it’s so noisy!’ You hear the [makes whooshing sound] of the wind noise.

Ears are definitely a part of the anatomy cyclists aren't thinking of.  When it comes to protection, a helmet is typically the one and only thing most people use. But is hearing something cyclists should worry about?  To find out if his hypothesis was true, Dr. Seidman needed to bring a little science to the equation. He set himself up inside the Ford Motor Company wind tunnel in Allen Park, Michigan, sat on his own bike, wore his own helmet, and attached a microphone next to each of his ears. Then he and his colleagues recorded the noise levels over a range of wind speeds and directions.

“We did from five miles an hour [8km/h] up to 60 miles an hour [100km/h] and we did 15-degree increments — straight on in the wind, 15 to the right, 30-degrees to the right … 90 degrees to the right, so that the wind is blowing directly at my left ear and the downwind ear is my right ear,” he said.

For every 15-degree increase, Dr Seidman’s team recorded the sound pressure level for 15 seconds, at each ear. To better observe the wind-flow, smoke was used.

Here's where Dr. Seidman's theory comes to fruition.

“Even at 10 miles an hour [16km/h] you were up in the range that is potentially noisy,” he said. “At 10 miles per hour you get 85dB of noise in the left ear, roughly 85 in the right ear. At 15 [24km/h] you’ve got almost 90[dB] … with no yaw [angle], just head on. And it went as high as 120dB.”

To put that noise levels in perspective, OSHA, the Occupational Safety and health Administration lists that you can be exposed to 85dB or sound for eight hours at a time.  However, even the 85dB can lead to hearing loss.

“OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, says you can be exposed to 85dB of loudness for an eight-hour time period at work. But that does cause noise-induced hearing loss — we know that it does,” he said. “So anything over 85dB causes noise-induced hearing loss. And you think you’re quiet — you’re not listening to personal listening devices, you’re not doing anything, but even at 10 miles an hour you’re are actually causing some noise trauma to your ears.”

And that’s the lower limit of what Dr Seidman found. The maximum recorded sound pressure level of 120.3dB was recorded when the wind speed was 60 miles per hour and when Dr Seidman was turned to the right at an angle of 30º. 120.3dB is the same noise level as a jet engine.

While most riders won’t get to 60 miles per hour on the bike, they don’t need to in order to start doing damage.

“If you think about riding downhill at say 30 miles an hour [48km/h] into a 10-mile-an-hour headwind, that’s 40 miles per hour [64km/h]. That’s 108dB of sound. That’s very routine for people to get,” Dr Seidman said. At higher wind speeds, the sound pressure levels differed significantly between upwind and downwind ears.

One thing to keep in mind, is that the study was done in an open lab.  This doesn't necessarily take into account outdoor settings like a heavily wooded area, or biking through residential areas with homes blocking the wind.  However, the information does lend some concern for those who bike daily.

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