Popping balloons can be louder than shotgun blasts—and can lead to permanent hearing loss, study says

January 30, 2017, University of Alberta
University of Alberta researcher Bill Hodgetts has conducted a study showing the impact of a bursting balloon can cause hearing damage. Credit: Bill Hodgetts photo

A common birthday party favour can blow up into a problem for children—but also a bigger conversation about hearing loss, say University of Alberta researchers.

U of A hearing experts Bill Hodgetts and Dylan Scott measured the noise generated by bursting 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. They aren't out to be party-poopers, but they want to use their findings about bombastic balloon noise, published in Canadian Audiologist, to raise awareness about general risks to hearing.

"This research is a conversation starter," said 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 is as good as the once healthy built-in system in your inner ear."

The shock to tiny eardrums may not seem worrisome; after all, how often is the average child exposed to a constant barrage of popping balloons? But it does raise the question of safety thresholds for impulse noise—created by a sudden burst of intense energy—that can result in gradual .

Both fathers of young children, Hodgetts and 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. Hodgetts got the idea after seeing a YouTube video where kids at a party stomped hundreds of balloons.

"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?"

Pretty loud, as it turns out.

Louder than a 12-gauge shotgun

Wearing ear protection and using a high-pressure microphone and a preamplifier, Hodgetts and Scott 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 noise impact of a bursting balloon can cause damage, according to University of Alberta hearing researchers. Study co-author Dylan Scott demonstrates one of the methods used in the study: blowing up the balloon to bursting. Credit: Bill Hodgetts

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.

"It's amazing how loud the balloons are," Scott said. "Nobody would let their child shoot something that loud without hearing protection, but balloons don't cross people's minds."

The results for the other two methods were slightly lower, but still a concern, he said.

As real a health concern as sun damage

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 suggested.

"We used to put on suntan oil and go as dark as we could, but you look at parents and schools and daycares and it's now part of the routine to put sunscreen on a child."

Adults should also follow suit, Hodgetts added, noting that he often sees parents clapping hearing protection on their children at family events like music or theatre festivals, but not doing the same for themselves.

"We need to think about our health just like we think about our overall health," he said. "Hearing loss is one of those invisible problem—until you have it, you don't even think about it. Once you have it, it impacts everything."

Explore further: Is your hearing at risk? Protect your ears

Related Stories

Is your hearing at risk? Protect your ears

June 6, 2016
Hearing loss is a natural part of the aging process. But noise-induced hearing loss is on the rise.

Noise from fireworks threatens young ears

July 3, 2015
(HealthDay)—The Fourth of July weekend is a time for celebrations and beautiful fireworks displays. But, parents do need to take steps to protect their children's ears from loud fireworks, a hearing expert cautions.

Almost 12 percent of children between ages 6-19 have noise-induced hearing loss

February 20, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Does your child or teen spend hours "plugged in" to an iPod? Tuning out may be doing more than irritating parents. It is estimated that almost 12 percent of all children between the ages of 6-19 have noise ...

Sounds of summer may threaten your hearing

June 27, 2014
(HealthDay)—Some of the most common sounds of summer—such as outdoor concerts, fireworks and construction—can pose a threat to your hearing if you don't take steps to protect yourself, an expert warns.

Adding higher frequencies helps detect adolescent hearing loss

November 21, 2016
Adding higher frequencies to the American Academy of Pediatrics hearing test protocol helps detect adolescent hearing loss, according to a team of pediatricians and audiologists.

Recommended for you

Calcium and Vitamin D supplements are not associated with risk of heart attacks

February 16, 2018
New research from the University of Southampton has found no association between the use of calcium or vitamin D supplementation and cardiovascular events such as heart attacks.

Study shows options to decrease risk of motor vehicle crashes for adolescent drivers

February 16, 2018
Adolescents who receive comprehensive and challenging on-road driving assessments prior to taking the license test might be protected from future motor vehicle crashes, according to a University of Alabama at Birmingham study ...

Being a single dad can shorten your life: study

February 15, 2018
The risk of dying prematurely more than doubles for single fathers compared to single mothers or paired-up dads, according to a study of Canadian families published Thursday.

Keeping an eye on the entire ageing process

February 15, 2018
Medical researchers often only focus on a single disease. As older people often suffer from multiple diseases at the same time, however, we need to rethink this approach, writes Ralph Müller.

Study suggests possible link between highly processed foods and cancer

February 14, 2018
A study published by The BMJ today reports a possible association between intake of highly processed ("ultra-processed") food in the diet and cancer.

Gov't says health costs to keep growing faster than economy

February 14, 2018
U.S. health care spending will keep growing faster than the overall economy in the foreseeable future, squeezing public insurance programs and employers who provide coverage, the government said Wednesday.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.