Could iPods Increase Hearing Loss Risk?


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(Davis, CA)
Wednesday, December 21, 2005

UC-Davis Homecoming -- I guess a stadium full of college students is as good a place as any to find an i-POD user. I’m interested in the debate over whether or not people who use MP3 players with those in the ear thingamajigs – called ear buds – are going to develop hearing loss later in their lives. I end up meeting Timothy, a senior trumpet player with the UC Davis Marching Band. 
 
EXCHANGE:
MJ: Tell me about your iPod. First of all, how often do you listen to it do you guess?
TH: Well, I listen to my iPod everyday, probably around 8 to 10 hours a week.
MJ: How loud do you think you listen to it?
TH: Pretty loud.
MJ: OK, well what kind of music do you listen to?
TH: Well, I’m very eclectic in my music. I listen to everything from indie rock and ska and punk to classic rock .. and this is the band called ‘Spoon’.
MJ: Spoon?
TH: Spoon.
MJ: Alright. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Spoon…. And this is about the volume you listen to?
TH: That’s the volume I listen to pretty much.
MJ: That’s pretty loud. Not too loud…. I like this actually. It’s pretty reminiscent of the 70’s rock. 
  
 Having grown up in the 60s and 70s, I’ve heard this “You’re gonna go deaf” argument before -- with dire warnings about rock concerts and Walkmans. But UC San Francisco Director of Audiology Robert Sweetow says digital technology has raised the stakes.   “The sound produced by the MP3 players and iPods and Cds  - because they don’t distort – people will tend to push them up as high as they can. Secondly, the further an earphone sticks into your ear and seals off your ear, the more sound is trapped in your ear canal, so that produces the capacity for greater damage.”
 
Most of the good research on Noise Induced Hearing Loss comes from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – or OSHA, and the military. But there aren’t many studies looking at hearing loss and MP3 players. There was a study last summer in Australia which showed that one out of four i-Podders was listening at levels high enough to cause hearing loss. But we still don’t know about the long-term effects.  However, Robert Sweetow says we do know how loud is too loud. “Those levels – according to the government – is that you’re not supposed to listen to more than 85 decibels for more than 8 hours, and every 5 decibels more you cut the time in half. So you’re not supposed to listen to 90 decibels for more than four hours, or more than 95 decibels for more than two hours, or 100 decibels for more than one hour..”
 
In France and some other European countries, I-POD volume is capped at 100 decibels. But in the US, volume can be pushed past 120 decibels. That’s about the same as having a front-row seat at a rock concert or a Sacramento Kings game. And consider this: if you’re using your MP-3 player to drown out noise on the RT, you’ll have to go over 90 decibels. Flying your favorite airline -- you’ll have to surpass about 100 decibels. “I think that middle-aged people like myself have been picking on kids since the Roman Empire.”
 
Robert Dobie is with the UC Davis Ear, Nose and Throat Department. He’s a self described who doubts there will be an epidemic of deaf I-Podders and wishes the media would focus on others truly at risk for hearing loss. "people that are losing their hearing unnecessarily either are working in unregulated industries like construction and agriculture and oil & gas which are not covered in the same way by OSHA. Or they are people who engage in noisy hobbies, especially hunting and shooting which are responsible for far more hearing loss than any other non-occupational exposures.”
 
Both Doctors Sweetow and Dobie are i-Podders.  While they disagree on whether we’ll have a delayed hearing loss epidemic from MP3 abuse, they agree common sense should be used and that it’s never a good idea to blast your i-Pod.  Again, Doctor Sweetow. “If you are walking around for 4 or 5 hours a day listening to that kind of sound you’re potentially going to be in trouble. And some people more than others. What we don’t know is who has kind of ‘soft’ ears and who has ‘hard’ ears for susceptibility. So certainly I think if you are listening to music and you take it away and you find that your  ears are ringing or your sense of hearing is a little bit dulled then you know that you are running the potential for creating damage to yourself and you got to cut back.”  

EXCHANGE:  
MJ: If someone told you that the amount you listen to, or the volume you listen to, would give you hearing loss down the road … theoretically …do you think would you change  your listening habits?
TH: Well, it depends to what extent. If they’re saying the earbuds are bad for my ears, then I can fix that by switching to larger, exterior headset then I would probably make the change. 

Timothy is part of the first wave of i-Podders – sales of MP3 players are expected to quadruple over the next four years.  That means there will be much more research -- and debate -- to come.