As It Happens

Audiologist warns that a balloon pop can be louder than a gun

A University of Alberta audiologist concludes that the sound of a popping balloon is louder than the blast from a 12-gauge shotgun
Bill Hodgetts' study on the effects of balloon popping on hearing appears in the journal "Canadian Audiologist". (Courtesy of Bill Hodgetts)

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University of Alberta audiologists aren't trying to ruin your parties. They are trying to make parties safer for your ears.

The sound made by popping balloons, they found, can be louder than a shotgun. And, as you can imagine, that can cause problems.

Bill Hodgetts is one of the study's co-authors. He spoke with As it Happens guest host Helen Mann from Edmonton. Here is part of their conversation. 

[A]ny loud impulse noise that we might think is really transient is something that can actually do some pretty serious damage to our ears.-Bill Hodgetts, associate professor at the University of Alberta and co-author of a study examining the effect of balloon popping on long-term hearing.
 
(Courtesy of Bill Hodgetts)
Helen Mann:
Professor Hodgetts, what have you got against balloons?

Bill Hodgetts: I have absolutely nothing against balloons. In fact, the whole paper was designed out of curiosity. We do have kids, and we were interested in whether or not these things were as loud as we thought they were. But we were really more interested in raising the conversation up about the potential hazards of a really short noise over our long-term hearing health — balloons, firecrackers, guns, any loud impulse noise that we might think is really transient and doesn't need to be worried about is something that can actually do some pretty serious damage to our ears. 

HM: Most of us have been surrounded by balloons at parties since we were little kids. So when did you get this idea that maybe you should investigate how loud the popping sound can be?

Study co-author Dylan Scott blows up a balloon until it pops, emitting a sound louder than a 12-gauge shotgun

5 years ago
0:19
Study co-author Dylan Scott blows up a balloon until it pops, emitting a sound louder than a 12-gauge shotgun 0:19

BH: We have lots of birthday parties in our lives these days, my co-author and I, with four kids amongst us. Kids just love balloons. I'm not trying to take that fun and joy away from children. Just popping them is something we ought to be a little bit cautious about, because the amount of damage that can occur at that kind of an impulse might not seem obvious, and it might not happen for a very long time, but it's a little bit like getting a really bad sunburn. You'll heal up and things will be OK, but you might have done some longer term damage. 

HM: So how do you go about measuring the volume of balloon pops?

"It's about 4 decibels higher than a 12-gauge shotgun. I think no parent would let their child shoot a shotgun without hearing protection." - Bill Hodgetts

BH: We started with a mannequin that we use often in audiology research. And we found that the microphone wasn't capable of detecting how loud the impulse was. We had to get a different microphone that was more sensitive to these loud sounds. And then we blew them up 'til they ruptured — that was the loudest of course, the explosion was the most intense. Then we crushed them to simulate sitting on a balloon, or having one crushed in your ear. And then we also pin-popped them. And the pin-pop and crush were a little bit lower, because you have a different breaking point. So where the pin goes in, the balloon just peels back and there's less of a shock wave, whereas the ones you blow up to the full exhaustion, it's just a ripple of sound that's quite intense. 

HM: So what was the highest decibel level that you measured?

Dylan Scott blows up a balloon to the point of rupture

5 years ago
0:13
Dylan Scott blows up a balloon to the point of rupture 0:13

BH: The average that we got for the 'right-to-exhaustion' next to the microphone was 168 decibels. It's about 4 decibels higher than a 12-gauge shotgun, measured in a different study. And I think no parent would let their child shoot a shotgun without hearing protection. I would hope they wouldn't let their child shoot a shotgun at a party anyway, but that's the same kind of level we're talking about. People wear safety glasses when they're using a table saw 'cause they're worried about getting something in their eye. But their ears don't bleed. And suddenly you go into the later part of your life and you've got ringing in your ears, and conversations are hard to hear, especially in background noise. And no hearing aid yet on the market can replace what your inner ear was capable of. And it never grows back.

HM: Are you able to estimate the number of balloon pops an ear could endure before it would suffer from damage?

If they accidentally go off, they accidentally go off. But doing it intentionally — they're pretty loud, and we shouldn't really be doing that.-Bill Hodgetts

BH: Yeah, that's in the paper. It's tricky to do that because you can't just blow up a whole bunch of balloons in your kids' ears to know what the actual number is. But we got somewhere in the region of that 168 DB that you wouldn't really want it near a kid's ear, and maybe only one or two exposures to an adult before you'd reach your maximum dose for a day.

HM: What do your daughters think about balloons now?

BH: They actually still like them. We use them for science experiments. The older girl's sort of like the balloon police now, and she educates all her friends. And actually, it's not banned in our houses. If they accidentally go off, they accidentally go off. But doing it intentionally — I think that's the message we'd like to get out there: they're pretty loud, and we shouldn't really be doing that.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to the full interview with Bill Hodgetts.

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