Popping balloons - a common birthday party favour - can be louder than shotgun blasts and may lead to permanent hearing loss, a new study has warned.
Scientists at University of Alberta in Canada measured the noise generated by bursting balloons and were startled to find that the impact, at its highest level, was comparable to a high-powered shotgun going off next to someone’s ear.
Researchers said they are not out to be party-poopers, but they want to use their findings about bombastic balloon noise, to raise awareness about general risks to hearing.
“This research is a conversation starter,” said Bill Hodgetts, an associate professor of audiology.
“We are not saying don’t play with balloons and don’t have fun, just try to guard against popping them. Hearing loss is insidious - every loud noise that occurs has a potential lifelong impact.
“We want people to be mindful of hearing damage over a lifetime, because once you get to the back end of life, no hearing aid is as good as the once healthy built-in system in your inner ear,” said Hodgetts.
Hodgetts and hearing expert Dylan Scott wanted to explore the balloon noise that often goes hand-in-hand with birthday parties, where the urge to pop the floating toy is irresistible.
“I thought the acoustic insult on those kids’ ears must be something to be concerned about, so we asked the question, how loud are these things?” said Hodgetts.
Wearing ear protection and using a high-pressure microphone and a preamplifier, researchers measured the noise effects by busting balloons three different ways: popping them with a pin, blowing them up until they ruptured and crushing them until they burst.
The loudest bang was made by the ruptured balloon at almost 168 decibels, four decibels louder than a 12-gauge shotgun.
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety recommends that the maximum impulse level any Canadian should experience should not exceed 140 decibels.
Even one exposure could be considered potentially unsafe to hearing for both children and adults, researchers said.
“It’s amazing how loud the balloons are. Nobody would let their child shoot something that loud without hearing protection, but balloons don’t cross people’s minds,” Scott said.
The results for the other two methods were slightly lower, but still a concern, he said.
Hearing damage occurs when the delicate hair cells - which don’t regrow - in the inner ear are worn down by noise.
People need to start viewing cumulative hearing loss the same way they think about an equally passive but very real health concern like sun damage, Hodgetts said.