Healthy Living in the North

Beware the noisy toy

Baby with toy

Do you know how loud your kids’ toys are? A few simple steps can help protect their hearing health!

I have seen many an adult with hearing loss due to excessive noise exposure. In my current role as a pediatric audiologist, I am more likely to see hearing problems due to an ear infection than to noise damage. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible, though.

The Canada Consumer Product Safety Act has a section on Toy Regulations. In it, they suggest that: “A toy must not make or emit noise of more than 100 decibels (dB) when measured at the distance that the toy would ordinarily be from the ear of the child who is using it.” One hundred decibels, though, is pretty darn loud!

Worksafe BC counsels, as do many safe workplace organizations, that at noise levels of 85 dB, an employer needs to provide proper hearing protection for their staff. Audiologists in both Canada and the US would agree this should also apply to toys. Granted, children may not play with that same toy for 8 hours (the length of an average workday); it’s more than likely that after about 10 minutes their parent tends to direct them to another, quieter, activity. But even these short playtimes with loud toys can be unsafe: Worksafe BC also counsels that workers can only be exposed to 100 dB for a period of 15 minutes before that noise becomes hazardous to hearing health.

Toy manufacturers are not required to specify the decibel output of their product, so how would a parent or well-meaning relative know? To put it into perspective: a gas-powered lawn mower is about 100 dB. So is a subway train entering the station. However, in neither case is the listener’s head as close to the sound as a child’s ear can be to a toy, or a teenager’s to an iPod. It stands to reason: the closer a sound is to our ears, the louder it is.

As parents don’t usually have sound level meters in their homes, what can they do?

Here are a few pointers:

  • Try before you buy. Listen to the toy, keeping in mind how close children will hold it to their ears. If you find it uncomfortably loud, it’s too loud for your child.
  • Is there a volume limiter, off switch, or battery compartment? You can always shut it off or remove the batteries. In the case of an iPod, iPhone, and/or iPad, a parent can access the volume limiter, reduce it, and lock it. Your teen may not be impressed, but their hearing health is protected – at least from the iDevice.
  • Depending on the size of the toy, put clear tape over the speaker. It will still make noise, but not as loud. If you’re crafty enough, your child may not even realize it’s there.

Interested in more information?

The Sight & Hearing Association, based out of Minnesota, provides an Annual Noisy Toys List. They use 85 dB as their upper limit, and a list can be provided to anyone who requests it!

Laura Curran

About Laura Curran

An audiologist at the Terrace Health Unit, Laura was born and raised in Nova Scotia but has made the trek to Terrace twice in her career - most recently in 2014, as she found she missed the beauty of the area. She started out in private practice for a national hearing aid dispenser and then moved into research before finding her main passion: Clinical Pediatric Audiology. When not working, Laura enjoys crafting, quilting, and camping with her husband.

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To swab or not to swab

Cotton swabs

Earwax is supposed to be there and is the very substance nature designed to protect our ears. Trying to remove it with cotton swabs is ineffectual and can cause serious damage to the eardrum.

“Hi Johnny,” I say to the child in my office chair. “I’m just going to take a peek to see if you have any bananas in your ears.” Johnny looks at me as if to say, “gee, this lady’s crazy” and the look of apprehension that had been on his face has now shifted to his mother’s. “I’m sorry,” she says, “They must be quite dirty. I haven’t had a chance to clean them.” My next question may set the tone for the remainder of the appointment. The last thing a mother wants to do is harm her child and I certainly don’t want to give her the impression I think she will, but I need to know. “How do you clean them?” I ask.

We’ve all heard it said: nothing smaller than your elbow should go into your ear. The manufacturers of the cotton swab warn against putting this device into the ear canal, yet it is well known that the main reason it is purchased is to clean the wax (cerumen) out of one’s ears – despite the fact that it is quite ineffectual at doing so. There is nothing on the end of a swab to grab and pull at a chunk of wax. If there is a substantial amount of wax in the ear, the swab is only going to push wax further into the ear canal (best case scenario). Worst case scenario: an accidental move can push the swab straight into the danger zone and possibly damage the eardrum significantly.

It’s true that many people report using swabs daily without incident. People report speeding in automobiles without incident as well. But any emergency doctor can tell you they’ve treated accident victims who are injured due to excessive speed, just like any doctor or audiologist can report they’ve seen a damaged eardrum due to an attempt to remove wax.

All of this really misses the point: the wax is supposed to be there and is the very substance nature designed to protect our ears. It is created and lives in the outer part of the ear canal and its purpose is to moisturize and keep things like dust, dirt, and bugs from getting deep into the ear. It constantly migrates outwards where it dries and falls out of the ear, often unnoticed by us.

There are instances, however, where a lot of wax can be problematic. Some people’s ears naturally produce more wax than others. Also, hearing aids do not allow for wax’s natural migration out of the ear, trapping it in the canal and eventually rendering the hearing aid ineffective. If this happens, then indeed the cerumen must be removed. But here’s the important part: it must be removed by a trained medical professional. Before removing the wax, they will use equipment that allows them to see into the ear canal properly, making sure there are no contraindications to removing the wax.

And I can assure you they will not be using cotton swabs!

… or candles. But perhaps that’s a topic for another day!

Laura Curran

About Laura Curran

An audiologist at the Terrace Health Unit, Laura was born and raised in Nova Scotia but has made the trek to Terrace twice in her career - most recently in 2014, as she found she missed the beauty of the area. She started out in private practice for a national hearing aid dispenser and then moved into research before finding her main passion: Clinical Pediatric Audiology. When not working, Laura enjoys crafting, quilting, and camping with her husband.

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