This is the first of an occasional series of Builder articles on workplace safety.
The U.S. Occupational Safetyand Health Administration mandates that worker exposure to jobsite noise be no more than 85 decibels. Yet OSHA also estimates that some 30 million workers are exposed to “hazardous” occupational noise every year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that since 2004, at least 125,000 workers have suffered significant, permanent hearing loss.
Overexposure to jobsite noise can also result in tinnitus, a constant buzzing or ringing in the ears that afflicts at least 50 million Americans, between 10 million and 12 million of whom suffer from a severe version.
There’s no known cure for tinnitus, but there are products on the market that claim to relieve its symptoms. One of the better-known suppliers is Bethlehem, Pa.-based Neuromonics, which offers a six-month tinnitus treatment that involves a lightweight medical device with headphones it calls Oasis. That product delivers music embedded with an acoustic neural stimulus that’s customized to the user’s audiological profile. When the treatment ends, a longer-term maintenance program worked out with an audiologist begins.
The drawback of these devices and treatments is that they can be pricey, several thousand dollars per patient, says Jeff Carroll, director of clinical services and engineering for SoundCure, a San Jose, Calif.–based company that in March officially launched a treatment system claiming to relieve tinnitus in some sufferers through “amplitude modulation.”
As a Ph.D. candidate, Carroll was part of a team at the University of California at Irvine that came up with a frequency pitch-matching process that customizes sounds to a patient’s unique tinnitus. The “S-tones” are designed to produce robust neural activity that’s synchronized with the patient’s ailment. The tones are modulated so rapidly that listeners can’t detect the changes. SoundCure’s breakthrough, says Carroll, is that those tones can be played softer than the noise caused by the patient's tinnitus to interfere with or suppress the buzzing or ringing.
Thirty-five percent of the 20 patients UC-Irvine tested using this process—which Carroll says can take six to 18 months before results manifest themselves—received greater than 70% reduction in their tinnitus perception; another 35% had a 30% to 50% reduction; and 30% had less than a 30% reduction.
“The hope and goal are habituation and amelioration, that the problem gets better,” Carroll tells Builder.
He declined to state the cost of this “sound therapy” system, which SoundCure calls Serenade, because it is likely to vary from medical center to medical center, depending on the overall services provided. (The company Allied Minds, which invests in life and physical science innovations, has licensed this technology, and the treatment is being sold through audiologists and doctors.) However, Carroll would estimate that the cost of SoundCure’s product “is consistent with the pricing of an entry-level hearing aid.”
The device looks and feels like an iPod, and can be used with headphones. The next step, says Carroll, could be for SoundCure to partner with a hearing aid manufacturer. He also says SoundCure continues to fine-tune its sound and is doing more demographic research on which segments of the population are most likely to need and seek this treatment.
He estimates that right now, between 1 million and 4 million Americans with tinnitus seek treatment, a number that might multiply if the cost were more affordable.
John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Jose, CA.