In recent months the media has focused its attention like a laser on the subject of portable mp3 players, careless listening habits and the potential for premature hearing loss. The core concern of the current news reports is not a new one. If you look back over two decades ago, similar stories blanketed the headlines with the release of the popular Walkman.
Despite the worldwide media attention, few news pieces firmly place the burden of responsibility on the individual by offering simple preventative measures consumers should take to protect their hearing. Lawsuits have surfaced, and many are questioning if it is the manufacturers who should be responsible for educating and protecting the end-user. Is all the hype warranted and is there really need for concern? If so, what should the average music enthusiast do to prevent the possibility of mp3 ear?
Just the facts, please!
FACT #1: Most people will experience age-related hearing loss gradually over time. We live in a world where numerous hazards to the health of our hearing exist and everyone gradually loses some hearing as we navigate through life. Genetics, illnesses, viruses and some pharmaceutical products dictate how rapidly our hearing declines. Additionally, our general level of health plays a significant role. Unfortunately, we have little control over most of these variables that pose a threat to our hearing.
FACT #2: Music-induced hearing loss is directly related to the level at which you listen and the duration of time you are exposed to the music. One cause of premature hearing loss that we do have significant control over is the amount of noise and/or music we allow ourselves to be exposed to. Whether your preference is Bach or Beck, we all want to enjoy our favorite tunes without the fear of causing harm to our hearing. Of utmost importance is that you are mindful of the levels at which you listen to your mp3 player as well as the amount of time you have the earphones attached to your ears.
Noise in industrial settings is a well-known occupational hazard. As a result, employers are mandated to ensure the safety of workers who might be exposed to damaging levels of sound. Two government-based organizations have established safe listening levels for industrial employees. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) www.osha.gov/SLTC/noisehearingconservation/ and NIOSH (National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health) www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/noise/ have developed widely accepted standards that have been put in place to protect workers from permanent hearing damage.
Currently, there is some question by experts regarding the direct applicability of industrial noise standards for music exposure. Regardless, the OSHA and NIOSH standards serve as a good reference for consumers looking for some basis and a guideline to preserve their hearing.
The chart below demonstrates what each organization has defined as a safe listening level in relation to the amount of time the individual is exposed. For example, if you were exposed to a relatively constant noise level of 85 decibels, you would be safe for 8 hours according to both standards. If we refer to the more conservative NIOSH standard, every 3 decibel increase in sound intensity would decrease your safe time in half. Therefore, exposure to continuous sounds of 88 decibels leaves you safe for 4 hours, 91 decibels for 2 hours, and so on (See Table 1).
Table 1. Amount of Safe Time at various levels based on OSHA and NIOSH standards.
FACT #3: Its not only the iPod! All portable mp3 players have the potential to cause music-induced hearing loss (lets not only pick on the folks at Apple!). The word potential is used here because, as far as I am aware, there are no studies to date expressing a more definitive statement. This is likely due to the fact that the technology has not been around long enough for hearing healthcare professionals to see an actual trend of increased hearing loss among users. Despite this fact, as was the case with portable media devices in the past, the potential does exist and this has been demonstrated through at least one formal investigation carried out earlier this year.
The American Speech-Language and Hearing Association (ASHA) www.asha.org/turndownthevolume/tech-damage.htm investigated numerous portable media devices from various manufacturers and measured output with a sound level meter. The table below summarizes the decibel range measured as it relates to the volume settings on the devices studied.
Table 2. Output levels for various volume settings for various portable media players as measured by ASHA.
FACT #4: You can listen without causing permanent hearing loss. If we utilize NIOSH standards and compare the average output of the devices as studied by ASHA, we have the ability to paint some broad brushstrokes:
listening at 1/4 of the total volume, youre potentially safe for approximately 1 hour with some of the devices studied,
- listening at 1/2 of the total volume, youre potentially safe for
- at 3/4 of the total volume, youre potentially safe for
- no one should use any of these devices at full-on volume as the risk for permanent hearing damage is significant in very little time.
Figure 1. Safe Time based on volume setting data from ASHA and NIOSH standards.
It is important to note that we are at the very beginning of understanding what portable mp3 players are capable of and there exists many variables to consider. Other formal research studies are currently underway that should provide more clarity with respect to volume output from these devices. Keep in mind that all portable media devices are not the same, and you should work with your audiologist to establish safe listening levels for your particular mp3 player.
What about those little white earbuds?
Besides monitoring the volume on your device and the length of time you listen, what else could you do to help preserve your hearing? The next step is to consider better fitting earphones that have sound isolating capabilities.
The little white earbuds have become a brand unto themselves, but when it comes to hearing preservation they are not the best option. In most cases, the physical fit is poor and isolation from environmental sounds is essentially non-existent. Both lead the user to turn the volume way up to compensate for poor fidelity. Considering hearing loss resulting from noise or music is directly associated with the level and duration of time you listen, increasing the volume would warrant a reduction in your listening time. The reality is that most listeners do not find cutting down on their listening time a preferable solution. Therefore, achieving decreased preferred listening levels is the goal.
Better quality headphones available from companies such as Shure www.shurestore.com, Etymotic Research www.etymotic.com and other manufacturers offer improved sound quality and also increase the users isolation from the roar of the world. In turn, the listener has the ability to achieve a most-comfortable listening level at lower volume settings in all listening environments. To take this one step further, many users are now being fit with custom molds to slip over their new headphones. This option offers superior fit and comfort as well as significant isolation from ambient noises (sometimes up to 26 decibels).
Real World Example
My office is based in a large metropolitan city. All of my patients who are mp3 enthusiasts must compete with the buzz of subways, midtown traffic, gyms and crowded streets. As a result, most have their mp3 players set to at least 3/4 of full-on volume. Occasionally, Ill see folks with the entire volume bar lit up!
After they purchase different headphones and are fit with custom sleeves, their most-comfortable listening level usually drops to around 1/4 of full-on volume. By making one simple and relatively inexpensive change, they have achieved a significant decrease from their original settings. Most important, many patients also report they are not tempted to increase the volume in less-than-ideal listening environments as they are able to enjoy acceptable sound quality at the new, softer listening levels.
One Final Note On Headphones
All headphones, including sound-isolating headphones, can potentially add to your chances of sustaining music-induced hearing loss if used inappropriately. For this reason, it is imperative that you discuss and establish safe listening levels with your audiologist.
Take responsibility now!
Hearing loss from excessive noise or music exposure is preventable and you are fully responsible for the outcome. The burden is on each and every individual to control listening levels and the amount of time mp3 players are used. Education forms the foundation, but there are other steps that should be followed to save hearing and prevent related issues such as tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Until a more definitive picture emerges from the research that is currently underway, consider the simple HEAR formula below. Being mindful of your hearing and taking action today just might help you add years to your ears!
Follow The HEAR Formula To Add Years To Your Ears.
Have your hearing tested by an audiologist annually, or sooner if you notice a problem.
Educate yourself about the hearing mechanism and the numerous threats to the health of your hearing.
Arm yourself with custom sound-isolating headphones for your portable mp3 player and earplugs for use when you attend concerts.
Reduce your exposure levels and the amount of time youre exposed to music and/or noise.
Craig A. Kasper, Au.D., FAAA is the Director of Audiology for the New York Otolaryngology Group in New York City. He is the author of the recently published book The Simple Guide To Optimum Hearing Health For The mp3 Generation. Information about The Simple Guide can be found on his website
www.DrCraigKasper.com. Dr. Kasper can be contacted via email at Craig@DrCraigKasper.com.