Why are some toys so noisy that they can damage your kid’s hearing?
That’s a question I wish I didn’t have to pose as we have just entered the year 2014. And this is in the US – a market known for its tough product-safety regulations, where manufacturers are under a lot of pressure of being sued if their products end up inflicting injuries on people.
A Flawed Acoustic Standard
The reality is that until as recently as 2009, toy manufacturers were not required to follow any guidelines regarding the sound level of toys. But since then, all toys are required to meet the acoustic standard set by the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) (ASTM F963-08). This acoustic standard states that the sound-pressure level produced by all toys, except close-to-the-ear toys, shall not exceed 85 decibel/dB at a distance of 50 cm/approx 1.6 feet from the surface of the toy.
This standard has a serious flaw though – while the maximum noise level is based on a 50 cm distance from the child, most kids play with toys by holding them or sitting right next to them, not at 50 cm/1.6 feet away. Anyone who has kids of their own can confirm how they, especially the younger ones, tend to hold their toys very close to the head/ears.
Noise Testing that Reflects Real Play
I was glad to find out that the non-profit organization the Sight & Hearing Association challenges the toy industry by putting together a list of the loudest/noisiest toys in the US marketplace. The mission of the Sight & Hearing Association is to enable lifetime learning by identifying preventable loss of vision and hearing.
On an annual basis, right before the busiest toy-shopping season, the Sight & Hearing Association (SHA) teams up with the University of Minnesota to test a range of toys for potentially dangerous noise levels.
As mentioned, most kids play with toys by holding them or sitting right next to them. Not at a 50 cm distance (approx 1.6 feet), which is what the acoustic standard bases its noise limit on. Therefore, the SHA tests toys in a way that better reflects real play situations based on how kids usually hold their toys. That way it is possible to get an understanding for just how loud these toys can get for kids. Decibel levels are recorded in two different situations – directly near the ear (0 inches) and at arm’s length (25 cm/10 inches – half the distance of the one used in the acoustic standard).
Excessively Loud Toys – A Clear Health Hazard
The testing, which takes place in a sound-proof acoustic chamber, has identified a large number of toys whose noise level was greater than 100 dB in intensity when measured right next to the speaker.
So what does 100 decibel mean? How loud is too loud? According to the SHA, over 100 decibel is “like a chainsaw in the ear canal”.
As a guiding principle, sounds that are 85 dB or louder can permanently damage hearing. The louder a given sound is, the less time of exposure it takes to cause damage to the auditory system.
The SHA explains that “a sound at 85 dB may take as long as eight hours to cause permanent damage, while a sound at 100 dB can start damaging the inner ear’s hair cells after only 15 minutes of exposure. According to NIOSH, part of the Centers for Disease Control, the permissible exposure time (the amount of time you should listen) is cut in half with every three decibels over 85 dB”.
So let’s repeat this – a sound at 100 dB can start damaging the inner ear’s hair cells after only 15 minutes of exposure. Our hypothesis at Elevating Sound is also that when it comes to babies and really young kids, their auditory system is extra sensitive to loud noise, which could cause damage after less than 15 minutes of exposure. And the toy retailers sell a range of toys, targeting young kids, with a noise level greater than 100 dB coming out of the speaker.
The obvious conclusion is that we are putting our kids at a severe risk of having their hearing damaged at a very early age. And the toy industry is making it hard for parents to protect their kids as they unknowingly pick out toys from the shelf that are highly inappropriate to be played with.
Noisy Toys Lists – or the Kid Toy Hall of Shame
The Sight & Hearing Association puts together annual Noisy Toys lists, which also in some regards should be seen as a Hall of Shame.
The number 1 spot of the 2011 Noisy Toys list was awarded to Fisher Price’s Disney Cars 2 Shake ‘N Go Finn McMissile – a toy whose noise level reached 124 dB. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) guidelines, at such a noise level a person starts to risk hearing damage in merely four seconds. So after four seconds of holding this Fisher Price toy close to the ear, a kid can get a permanent hearing damage.
At second place of the 2011 Noisy Toys list came Disney Princess Follow Your Dreams, a play-a-sound book meant for a toddler 18 months or older. The noise level? 118 dB!
Below, you will find information on the top 5 loudest toys from the 2013, 2012 and 2011 Noisy Toys lists, based on decibel/dB ratings at 0-inch distance from the speaker. The respective toy manufacturer in brackets. You will notice that some of these toys are really popular, top-selling toys with a large number of kids being exposed to them, which makes it even more of a concern.
2013 Noisy Toys List – Top 5
- Disney Baby Einstein/Take Along Tunes (The Baby Einstein Company, LLC) – 114.8 dB – Elevating Sound comment: we did notice that this toy does have a volume control with two set levels, so the 114.8 dB is probably the sound level when the volume is set to high (see YouTube video below)
- Twister Dance Rave (Hasbro) – 107.9 dB
- B. Meowsic (Piano) (Maison Joseph Battat, Ltd.) – 106.8 dB
- Doc McStuffins – Talkin’ Check-up Set (Disney, Jr. Just Playing) – 102.8 dB
- Road Rippers – Road Rockin’ Ricky (Toy State Industrial, Ltd.) – 101.2 dB
Click here for full Sight & Hearing Association’s Noisy Toys List 2013 with additional details per toy.
2012 Noisy Toys List – Top 5
- Disney Pixar Toy Story Talking Figure Buzz Lightyear (Mattel, Inc.) – 111 dB
- Nickleodeon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Leonardo’s Electronic Sword (Playmates Toys) – 109.2 dB
- Dora the Explorer/Dora’s Desert Friends (Publications Int’l., Ltd.) – 108.2 dB
- Barbie Little Learner Laptop (Oregon Scientific) – 108 dB
- Playskool/123 Sesame Street Let’s Rock Grover Microphone (Hasbro) – 107.3 dB
Click here for the full Sight & Hearing Association’s Noisy Toys List 2012 with additional details per toy.
2011 Noisy Toys List – Top 5
- Disney Cars 2 Shake N Go! Finn McMissile (Fisher Price) – 124 dB
- Disney Princess Play-a-Sound Follow Your Dreams (Publications, Intl.) – 118 dB
- Hot Wheels Super Stunt Rat Bomb (Toy Quest) – 116 dB
- Disney Cars 2 Shake N Go! Professor Z (Fisher Price) – 114.1 dB
- Toys Story 3 Matchbox Garbage Truck (Mattel, Inc.) – 113.2 dB
Click here for the full, condensed Sight & Hearing Association’s Noisy Toys List 2011.
I’m left with a few fundamental questions…
- WHY do these toys need to be so loud?
- Is there a notion that these toys will not be fun enough to play with if the noise levels were to be reduced to more reasonable and ear-safe levels?
- Or is this rather a result of toy product developers lacking basic skills about noise and how it can impact the auditory system of kids, in conjunction with sub-standard suppliers of speaker technologies?
This has got to stop. Elevating Sound would be very interested in getting comments from toy manufacturers as to how they see the future of toys and noise levels, and why we have this issue still in the year 2014.
We need to do a much better job at protecting the well-being of our children – us consumers can use the power of directing our purchase decisions to toy manufacturers who safeguard the hearing of kids, and toy manufacturers need to step up their game and take much more responsibility for the potential consequences of the products they launch into the marketplace.
Advice to Parents: How to Avoid Noisy Toys
There’s legal regulations and then there’s common sense. In a marketplace, where some toys are excessively loud, the best advice to parents is to always listen to a toy before buying. And if a toy seems too loud to them, then it will likely be too noisy for their kid/s.
The Sight & Hearing Association provides the following advice for parents of a small child:
- Listen to a toy before you buy it. If it sounds loud to you, it’s too loud for your child.
- If you wish to buy toys with sounds, look for toys with volume controls so that you can control the volume
- If you already own a noisy toy or receive ona as a gift and would like to keep it, try putting clear packing tape (or glue) over the speaker on the toy. This will help reduce the volume. Check if the volume has been sufficiently reduced, which could transform your health-hazardous toy into an ear-safe toy that can be played with without damaging the hearing.
- Report a loud toy. The Sight & Hearing Association has a special e-mail address at firstname.lastname@example.org.