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Young iPod Users Risk Permanent Hearing Damage, Warns Expert

April 21, 2010

I am a young person who loves her  iPod, so this article comes as an unpleasant surprise to me. Comments welcome, as always.

An iPod.Young iPod users may be putting their hearing at risk. Photograph: Ian West/PA

Young people who listen to iPods at full volume are subjecting their ears to the same noise intensity as an aircraft taking off, and could be doing themselves permanent harm, an expert warned today. More than 90% of young people listen to a personal music player, many with the sound cranked up to full volume.

Earphones inserted into the ear canal produce sound levels which can exceed 120 decibels – a similar level to a jet leaving the runway, according to Peter M Rabinowitz, associate professor of medicine at the Yale school of medicine in the US.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Rabinowitz said MP3 players have become popular so quickly that doctors and scientists have been left behind by technology. They are unable to say what sort of toll they may exact in hearing loss.

“As with mobile phones, the use of personal music players has grown faster than our ability to assess their potential health consequences,” he wrote.

About 16% of adults between the ages of 16 and 69 have impaired hearing in the US, according to Rabinowitz.

He acknowledged that there is no conclusive evidence of damage as yet, but added: “Several small studies have found that reported use of personal music players is associated with worse hearing function in adolescents and young adults.”In 2001, an analysis of health survey data collected in the USA found that 12.5% of children between the ages of six and 19 showed signs of noise-induced hearing loss. But a separate study showed that the hearing of young adults entering the workforce improved between 1985 and 2004.

There are various possible reasons for the discrepancy, he writes. First, the rise in popularity of MP3 players has been so rapid and recent that the full effects may only just be starting to show. On the other hand, most people may not be listening for long enough at high volumes to suffer damaged hearing. A third possibility is that long-term exposure to noise may “toughen” or condition the ears to resist damage – which has been shown in animal studies.

Rabinowitz suggests that a precautionary approach would now be sensible. One measure might be to limit the volume of MP3 players, while more research is done. New European regulations will in fact require MP3s to have a default setting of 85 decibels, which can be overridden if the user wants.

The Royal National Institute for the Deaf said Rabinowitz was right to sound the alarm.

“Our research shows 66% of personal music player users are listening to music at louder than 85 decibels, which according to the World Health Organisation, can cause permanent hearing damage over time,” said the RNID’s Emma Harrison.

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