Question of the Week

December 19, 2005


Portable music players (such as iPod®) are in the ears of many teens, and many more will likely have them when this holiday season comes to an end.

"The surge in sales of iPods and other portable music players in recent years could mean many more people will develop hearing loss, experts fear. If the volume through headphones is too high, there is a real risk of permanent damage to hearing, they say. Sydney's National Acoustic Laboratories found a quarter of personal music system users in a random sample listened to music at dangerous volumes. ... A recent study by the Royal National Institute for
Deaf People (RNID) found 39% of 18 to 24-year-olds listened to personal music players for at least an hour every day and 42% admitted they thought they had the volume too high. The RNID regards 80 decibels as the level at which hearing is threatened - 20 less than a pneumatic drill. Some MP3 players can reach 105 decibels. EU [European Union] iPods have a sound limiter to comply with noise safety levels, however sometimes users hack through this in order to listen to it louder."

Even though EU iPods are limited to 105 decibels, there are those who are concerned. Extended use can cause damage -- even with the limits. Then there are those who "hack through" the safety feature in order to eliminate the limits and make the personal music players as loud as those in the United States. In the US, volumes (and concerns) are turned up even more.

"Normal conversation registers about 60 decibels, a barking dog up to 70, while the subway is around 85 decibels -- all in the safe zone. But the rock band at 120 decibels and your personal stereo system at up to 130 decibels could cause hearing loss if you listen too long."

At 130 decibels, the rock band in a person's ear could be louder than the rock band at a concert. While most people don't spend hours at concerts or night clubs every day, they may spend hours with their headphones on and the volume cranked up. As for those who do spend hours at concerts and/ or clubs on a regular basis (like musicians), there is a concern in their community, as well. While experienced musicians who have suffered the effects of noise-induced hearing loss are trying to educate newer musicians, they are also trying to educate their fans. Recently, in "Rolling Stone"...

"Hearing loss is one of the dirty secrets of the music business, and everyone involved -- from musicians onstage to fans who crank MP3s through headphones -- is at risk. 'We turn it up without realizing that we're doing damage,' says Brian Fligor, an audiologist at Boston Children's Hospital. 'Noise-induced hearing loss develops so slowly and insidiously that we don't know it's happened until it's too late.' ... For the iPod generation, the trouble could be worse. Twenty-two million American adults own an iPod or other digital-music player, and studies show that sustained listening, even at moderate volume, can cause serious harm."

If a digital-music player can cause damage "even at moderate volume," then how can a person tell what is too loud, and what is safe? And how much harm is it really doing? Aren't ears designed to hear things? How could sounds damage them?

"Noise-induced hearing loss has always been an issue with people who use headphones, said Julie Rhoades, an audiologist at Penn State's Hershey Medical Center. 'In general, if someone else can hear what you [are listening to], it is too loud,' she said. ... 'It scares me when I walk across campus, and there's a student walking 10 feet in front of me listening to music, and I can hear and feel the sound coming out of the headphones,' said Uhring. 'I know what damage is being done.' The damage takes place in the inner ear, where the loud noises destroy the frequency-sensitive hair cells inside the cochlea, Uhring said. The hair cells, which convert vibrations of sound waves into electrical impulses for the brain to understand, are arranged from high frequency to low. This is why high frequency hearing usually is the first to be affected by noise-induced hearing loss, she added. ... High frequency hearing is used to distinguish sounds from background noise, said Uhring. ... [W]ithout higher frequency hearing, it is difficult to understand speech."
The Daily Collegian

Anyone who enjoys their music enough to turn up the volume is not going to want to lose the ability to hear their favorite music, and not many people are going to say that they don't want to be able to understand what other people are saying. In order to be able to enjoy the music now, and for years to come, those in the music industry recommend:
"Five Ways to Save Your Ears
1. Wear earplugs: Coldplay and Dave Matthews Band wear ear protection. You should too. A pair of cheap foam earplugs will do the trick, but it's better to invest in higher-fidelity [earplugs] ... which reduce volume without cutting out too much high end.
2. Turn it down: Don't crank up your portable music player too loud, especially to compensate for other noise around you. If you're on a subway, the ambient noise could be as high as 105 decibels. To hear your tunes, you might turn the music up to 110, a level that is safe only for thirty minutes.
3. Get better headphones: Those that shut out external noise allow you to turn down the tunes. In-ear phones ... go deep into the ear canal to block pretty much all outside noise -- plus they sound great...
4. Give your ears a rest: 'There's nothing wrong with going to a rock concert on Friday night,' says Marshall Chasin. 'Just don't mow your lawn on Saturday.' Your ears need about eighteen hours after exposure to sustained high volumes before they return to normal.
5. Quit smoking: It doubles the risk of noise-induced hearing loss. 'After a loud show, the way you get better is through blood supply to your inner-ear nerve cells,' says Chicago audiologist Michael Santucci. 'If you do something cardiovascularly restrictive, like smoking, your blood supply won't be as good. You're being exposed to two toxins, the cardiovascular toxin and the noise toxin.'"

Some changes can be made without a trip to the store (quit smoking, rest your ears, and turn down the volume), others may require some research and a few extra dollars. While it may be hard to justify the extra money, many of the filters for headphones (that remove outside noise and allow people to turn down the volume) actually are a way of improving the sound quality of the music that is heard -- and they cost much less than a hearing aid. Quality earplugs will also filter out noise "extras" and allow the wearer to better hear the music at a concert or club.

It may be odd to think of a musician wearing earplugs, but consider that there are many varieties of ear protection -- and the members of the top bands are not likely to be wearing the same type that one can get for two dollars at the local drug store. While those do have their place (and they do offer some protection), there are many more from which to chose for those who are serious about their music -- and their hearing.

"Good quality earplugs don't block your hearing, they filter the sound so you can enjoy it more.  To use the proper term, good earplugs attenuate the sound you hear, which means they act like a volume control in your ear.
"One size fits all. Re-usable so you can use them again and again, and ideal for using at gigs and clubs. They work by reducing the noise level that reaches your ear, usually by about 15 - 20 decibels. This means you can still hear the music the way it is - but at a lower volume. Don't worry about feeling self-conscious - if you put them in correctly most people won't even notice that you're wearing them. ...
"Custom made musicians' earplugs, Professional musicians and DJs usually buy these, but if you are regularly at loud gigs and clubs you could think about investing in a pair. Custom fitted earplugs are high quality and tailor made to fit your ear. To get a pair, you have to visit an audiologist who will take a mould of your ear, then your individual mould is fitted with a filter. ...
"Additions to in-ear headphones ... are designed to fit onto any in-ear headphones you might have, like your personal stereo or mobile phone earphones. When the new plug is placed in your ear it creates an acoustic chamber which reduces background noise. This means you don't have to turn up the volume of your personal stereo/mobile phone/radio to drown out other noises. ...
"Disposable earplugs ... are the easiest to find in the shops. They come in all sorts of colours and shapes and are usually quite comfortable as they are made out of foam or wax. Wearing these may interfere with your enjoyment of the music, but some people like them so why not try foryourself?!"
Don't Lose The Music

Questions of the Week:
What do you and your peers need to know in order to make educated decisions that will allow you to best enjoy your favorite music while still protecting your hearing? Given your lifestyle -- and what is important to you -- what do you, personally, need to do in order to protect your hearing? How is this different for different people?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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