For the first time, global body releases guidelines on how noise from leisure activities can be harmful to health.
By Joanna Sugden
Oct. 9, 2018 6:01 p.m. ET

Sshh, turn down the volume. The World Health Organization wants to make the planet a quieter place and says taking out those earbuds is a good place to start. For the first time, the WHO has released guidelines on how noise from leisure activities, especially listening to music through earbuds, can be harmful to health.

The organization—better known for its efforts to halt the spread of Ebola or eradicate polio—wants governments to lower ambient-noise levels to reduce stress and the incidence of heart disease and diabetes. Increased noise from road traffic can lead to stress and sleep deprivation, which can both lead to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, studies cited by the report found.

Along with the cacophony from planes, trains and automobiles, the din pumped through headphones, at fitness classes and during rock concerts is damaging our health, the WHO’s guidelines published on Tuesday said. Even toys can present an auditory danger.

Almost half of those aged 12 to 35 years living in middle- and high-income countries listen to “unsafe levels of sound” through devices such as smartphones and MP3 players, the WHO found. It estimated that 1.1 billion young people world-wide could be at risk of hearing loss caused by dangerous listening habits.

“Changes in behavior are expected to be tricky to implement,” the team that put together the guidelines to prevent hearing damage from leisure noise acknowledged. Despite this, they are sure their recommendations won’t fall on deaf ears. Lowering the volume on “personalized-listening devices” or listening to them less frequently could reduce accidents, injuries and other potential safety risks as well decrease as noise-induced hearing loss.

The cost of interventions to encourage people to keep the noise down during leisure time would be cheap, the report said. But in terms of effort, it could be more expensive than measures to lower the impact of noisy traffic or railroads.

Listening to music through earbuds, going to concerts and attending sporting events “are activities regarded as enjoyable,” the WHO guidelines acknowledged, and some population groups—especially younger individuals—might voluntarily expose themselves to high levels of sound during these activities.

WHO researchers expected the recommendations would be particularly welcome in efforts to protect the hearing of young children and teenagers. “These vulnerable groups often do not have control over their environment and the noise levels to which they are exposed, such as from noisy toys or at school,” the report said. The guidelines were developed for use in Europe but are applicable world-wide, the WHO said, and are based on research conducted in Europe, the U.S. and Australia.

Stephen Stansfeld, a professor of psychiatry at the Queen Mary University of London who chaired the group that created the new guidelines, said previous WHO guidelines on noise issued in 1999 and 2009 hadn’t included the health impacts of noise from leisure pursuits. “These guidelines are evidence-based and health-based,” Mr. Stansfeld said.

Hearing loss occurs from the combined exposure to different sources and develops very slowly over years, making it difficult to properly gauge the health impact from prolonged use of headphones and noise from loud concerts or sporting events. But evidence shows health impacts from overexposure to any kind of loud noise include increased blood pressure, heart disease and heart attacks, Mr. Stansfeld said at a press conference to announce the guidelines.

No commonly accepted method for assessing the risk of hearing loss because of environmental exposure to noise has been developed, the WHO said. But it recommends that noise from leisure activities shouldn’t exceed an average of 70 decibels over 24 hours each year.

“This is equivalent to listening to a television at normal volume all day and all night throughout the year, not saying that you are going to do that, but your exposure to noise should average out at this level,” Mr. Stansfeld said.

Write to Joanna Sugden at  Appeared in the October 9, 2018, print edition of the Wall Street Journal.

This editor’s note: consider loading the app, Decibel X, for either iPhone or Android and check volumes any time you wish.