NIOSH Funds Follow-Up Hearing Study

Fifteen years ago, the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation conducted what the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health calls "a landmark study," finding that an educational intervention improved hearing protection use among farm youths. Now, NIOSH has awarded Barbara Marlenga, Ph.D., a $954,000 grant to find and study the same group of individuals to see whether that increase in hearing protection use continued into adulthood and whether the protection helped to preserve hearing.

The new study will evaluate whether the hearing conservation program conducted with farm youth from 1992 through 1996 had long-term benefits to safeguard hearing, NIOSH said, adding that the impact of the research goes beyond agriculture. "Noise-induced hearing loss is a big problem," said Marlenga, a research scientist with MCRF's National Farm Medicine Center. "Ten million people in the United States, including children and youth, have hearing loss from exposure to loud noises. More than 30 million workers are estimated to be exposed to hazardous noise levels on the job."

NIOSH noted the key to the success of this new study is the ability to find the youths from the original research study. To qualify for the new grant, Marlenga and colleagues conducted a search for the earlier participants, who are now young adults. She sent a letter to a small number of the original 689 people, then called and asked whether they were willing to participate in the follow-up study. More than 90 percent of those she reached said they would participate.

"Being able to demonstrate that we could find these students again was crucial to our receiving the grant," Marlenga said. "If we had not completed this feasibility study, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health would have said 'You'll never find them. They won't participate.' "

MCRF's original study evaluated hearing of 689 Wisconsin farm youth in junior and senior high school. Half the participants received ear muffs and ear plugs as well as training and reminders about using hearing protection over a four year period while in school. At the end of the study, the youth who received the intervention reported using hearing protection more consistently than those who did not, although at that time the hearing test results were not different between the two groups. "After 15 years, we expect that noise-induced hearing loss would start to appear," Marlenga said.

For the new study, participants will again have their hearing tested and will be asked about work and home noise exposure. They will also be asked about hearing protection and whether they are required to use it where they work. "This is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to see if early intervention to prevent noise-induced hearing loss can be sustained over time," Marlenga said.

Those who participated in the original study and would like to take part in this follow-up study can call 715-221-8785 or toll-free 877-594-3499.

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