Concerns Over Hearing Loss Due to MP3 Players

By: Althea Paul
By: Althea Paul

February 8, 2006

Nowadays you can't walk down the street or go to the gym without seeing someone listening to a portable music player - such as an iPod. Chances are you either own one of the devices or you know someone who does.

However, as their popularity continues to grow, so are concerns about long term hearing damage. MP3 players can hold thousands of songs and have more battery power than older players. When you add loudness to that, it could mean trouble for your ears in the future.

You see them everywhere. On the street or in the gym. Portable MP3 players such as iPods. Not only do you see them, sometimes you can even hear them.

"Really I just kind of turn it up as loud as I need to," said UVA student Gloria Interrante.

"If it's a good song you turn it up," explained MP3 owner, Brett Martz.

This is one of the reasons some doctors say they're seeing more younger patients with noise induced hearing loss.

"They're purposefully using them to cancel out outside sounds. And so to put them at a level where you have to cancel out outside sounds, you really have to put the volume up at a pretty high decibel," said otolaryngologist, Dr. Paige Powers.

We decided to hit the street to see exactly how loud music lovers are listening to their MP3 players. Keep in mind that experts say that normal everyday conversation hovers at around 60 decibels.

We saw some levels in the 70's. Others peaked even higher. Some over 80. Most MP3 players can reach up to 115 decibels. Compare that to other noises, such as an airport runway - which registered at about 100 decibels. Or a car alarm at 86 decibels. What about a barking dog? That clocks in close to 80 decibels.

That was around the same level that some listeners were pumping tunes into their ears. However, experts say it's not just the loudness that can lead to hearing problems. It's also the duration.

When asked how long he spent using his iPod, 16-year-old owner Andy Dunlap said, "Usually like 2 or 3 hours a day."

Since the devices can hold thousands of songs, we're talking about hours and hours of music. In many cases music that's already at a pretty high volume.

"The shearing forces on the hair cells of the cochlea in the inner ear can cause hair cell death when repeatedly injured and that's what often it is with iPods. It's a repeated damage, due to the duration," said Dr. Powers.

However it seems a good amount of listeners don't seem too concerned.

"Nope, not something I've ever really thought of before," said Interrante.

"Nope. I guess it should be, but it's kind of out of mind at this point," said Martz.

However doctors are urging music listeners to be aware of the volume and the length of time spent on the devices. Current recommendations suggest listening at 60% of the player's volume, for no more than 60 minutes a day. Here's a good guide.

"If you've got your iPod high enough that you can't hear outside conversation, it's too loud," said Dr. Powers.

It may seem to take the fun out of music devices, but in the long run, you ears will thank you.

Doctors also stress that the most important thing is for music listeners to be aware of the potential problem. By the time you notice that there is an issue with your hearing, it's too late because the damage is irreversible.

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