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Don't Let Gun Sports Backfire on You:
Use Ear Protection and Hang Onto Your Hearing

Shawn Dulohery, a national- and world-champion skeet shooter and 2004 Olympic team member in the skeet event, would never fire a gun without them. Likewise, Dave Henderson, a nationally recognized outdoor sports writer and hunting expert, wouldn't dream of venturing into the woods without his. These two highly skilled shooters ardently support the wearing of ear protection such as earplugs or earmuffs when firing a rifle, shotgun, or other firearm used in hunting and sport shooting.

"Wearing ear protection is extremely important, not only for people who shoot, but for bystanders as well," says Dulohery. For this reason, the top-tier marksman—a silver medalist in the 2005 national shotgun shooting championships in Colorado Springs, CO—always carries two types of ear protection to the firing range: one type for when he is shooting and another type for when he is watching other people shoot.

Dulohery knows from experience. The 40-year-old Sergeant First Class in the U.S. Army's Marksmanship Unit, Fort Benning, GA, has been target shooting since the age of 12. He has already lost some of his hearing, and he is determined to protect the hearing he still has.

"Loud noise, such as the 140-decibel blast of a rifle, can irreparably damage the specialized cells of the inner ear—called hair cells—that enable us to hear," says James F. Battey, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., director of NIDCD. "So it is vitally important for us to protect our ears when we are repeatedly exposed to loud noise."

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recommends that hunters and shooters wear earplugs and earmuffs together when firing guns, to increase the amount of hearing protection provided.

Yet, according to a 2000 study supported by the NIH, too many male hunters and target shooters are not wearing ear protection at all. In fact, of the approximately 1,500 Wisconsin men who participated in the study, 95 percent of those who hunt and 38 percent of those who target shoot had never worn ear protection during the year preceding the study. (Women were not included in the study since few women from the study community had recently participated in either activity.)

Most notably, the study demonstrates a direct link between hunting or target shooting and high-frequency hearing loss in men. High-frequency hearing loss is the reduction of the ear's ability to hear high-frequency sounds, the sounds that are necessary for understanding speech.

Henderson, an avid outdoor sportsman who has published four books on hunting, along with thousands of newspaper and magazine articles on hunting and shooting, discovered his hearing loss at age 19 during a physical he took for the military.

"I never used hearing protection as a kid. Nobody did," tells Henderson, who began shooting when he was 10. "When I walked out of the test booth, the tester said, 'You're a shooter. Typical pattern,'" noting that Henderson's hearing loss was primarily in the high-frequency range, with slight loss in the middle range.

At 56, Henderson, who shoots 15,000 rounds of shotgun and rifle ammunition annually, has been wearing hearing protection without fail for the past two decades. He frequently delivers presentations to new hunters and shooters, particularly children and teens, pointing out that, as hearing protection becomes more sophisticated, there's no excuse not to wear it. For example, some hearing protection devices make it possible to block out loud sounds while amplifying softer sounds that hunters or target shooters need to hear, such as snapping twigs or the issuing of range commands.

"Ear protection still is very much neglected, especially in hunting," Henderson cautions. "But, particularly in hunting, our sense of hearing is very important—almost as important as our sense of vision. We need to protect it as much as we can."

For more information on noise-induced hearing loss, visit the NIDCD Web site at www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/hearing/pages/noise.aspx. For more information on hearing protection options, visit the NIOSH Web site at www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/noise/.

Reference: DM Nondahl et al. Recreational firearm use and hearing loss. Archives of Family Medicine 9(4):352-7 (2000).

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