Space & Innovation

Can Sound Kill You?

Could sound be so powerful that it can kill you? Maybe it's a good thing your parents always told you to turn your music down...

Despite the best efforts of The Who -- and the entire career output of Mötorhead -- maximum rock and roll cranked to 11 probably can't kill you. But it's entirely possible that sound itself could do the trick.

In today's DNews report, Julian Huguet explores the lethal aspects of extremely loud sounds. It seems that over in the Netherlands, the European Space Agency (ESA) has been testing an array of four giant horns that can produce sounds as loud as 154 decibels (dB). The facility is designed to test whether satellites can withstand the sound of a rocket launch.

It's a legitimate concern that various space agencies have been dealing with for decades. That's because sound is essentially a mechanical wave caused by oscillations in air pressure. The greater the change in air pressure, the louder we perceive that sound to be. At sufficient volume, sound can cause physical damage, and that's no good when you're trying to shuttle delicate technology into orbit.

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But how loud would a sound have to be to harm or actually kill a person? Well, it's been speculated that 195 decibels would do the trick. (By comparison, normal conversation registers at 60 dB; an ambulance siren at 10 feet is about 115 dB). At that volume, air pressure fluctuations would be severe enough to damage your lungs, creating lethal air bubbles in the blood or simply causing the lungs to pop like balloons. Not a lot of research has been done in this area, but the evidence we do have is certainly evocative.

The good news is that it would be difficult, and perhaps impossible, to artificially generate a noise loud enough to kill a person. Yes, the ESA facility is cranking out noise just 40 dB below the theoretical lethal threshold. But the the decibel scale is logarithmic, like the Richter scale for earthquakes. So a sound at 100 decibels has 10 times the energy as a sound at 90 decibels.

Those ESA speakers are about as loud as we can get them. To ramp the up to the lethal threshold, the sound wave they generate would need to have 10,000 times more energy. That's going to take some doing, but maybe we can get Pete Townshend to consult.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

NASA: Sound Suppression Test Unleashes A Flood

Washington Post: Can Sound Or Silence Be Used to Kill?

Discovery Of Sound In The Sea: How Does Sound In Air Differ From Sound In Water?