Party Danger: Balloons Pop Louder Than 12-Gauge Shotgun Blasts

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Take notice at your child’s next birthday party — those popping balloons may be doing irreversible damage to your kid’s ears.

A new study from researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada has discovered some rather disquieting news about the peak noise level of a ruptured balloon. As part of their study, the researchers measured the loudest balloon blast at 168 decibels, a noise level that surpasses the sound of a 12-gauge shotgun, exploding fireworks and even a jet engine taking off.

“It’s amazing how loud the balloons are,” said co-author Dylan Scott in a news release. “Nobody would let their child shoot something that loud without hearing protection, but balloons don’t cross people’s minds.”

While the researchers hope their new study makes people aware of the potential harm of something that’s often viewed as a fun party toy, they also don’t want to snatch balloons from young partygoers’ hands.

The intention of this research is not to have balloons banned from society,” write Scott and co-researcher Bill Hodgetts in the journal Canadian Audiologist.

“This research is a conversation starter,” added Hodgetts. “We are not saying don’t play with balloons and don’t have fun, just try to guard against popping them.”

Related: What’s That? Lack Of Iron May Be Associated With Hearing Loss

Millions suffer from noise-induced hearing loss every year, including as many as 16% of teens, according to the National Institutes of Health. While noise levels near 85 decibels, which is about the sound of a food processor or blender, can lead to hearing loss over time, louder one-off events can also significantly damage hearing.

“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.

How their Research Started

Credit: North Charleston/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

What began as a nuisance quickly turned into an exploration of something far more dangerous. “Our initial objective for this experiment was to explore whether two concerned fathers had any justification for their disdain of children’s party balloons,” write the authors in Canadian Audiologist.

“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 Scott.

The researchers assessed three ways of measuring balloon noise: popping them with a pin, blowing them to overcapacity, and crushing them. The most deafening noise came from blowing up the balloons until they ruptured. But the other two methods weren’t far behind, creating decibel levels of 154 when popped by a pin and 159 when crushed.

Credit: Stefan Schmitz/Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

It turns out the ear-ripping noise is well above safe levels no matter which way the balloons burst. The researchers hope their new study will create greater awareness about the hearing perils of balloons — similar to the acceptance of sunscreen as a normal part of life.
“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,” said Hodgetts.

“We need to think about our hearing health just like we think about our overall health,” he added. “Hearing loss is one of those invisible problems – until you have it, you don’t even think about it. Once you have it, it impacts everything.”

Related: Fewer Americans Under 70 Are Losing Their Hearing

Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.