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The Budding Health Problem Of Earbuds

Are iPods and other portable music players hazardous to your hearing? It certainly can be if you turn the volume up too high or if you listen for long periods of time.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) on March 14 announced the results of a survey it commissioned that found that "more than half of high school students surveyed report at least one symptom of hearing loss." Although teens were more likely to report problems than adults, adult listeners weren't off the hook.

The survey, conducted by Zogby International, involved interviews with 1,000 adults and 301 teens.

High school students, according to the survey, "are more likely than adults to say they have experienced three of the four symptoms of hearing loss." These are turning up the volume on their television or radio (28 percent students vs. 26 percent adults); saying "what?" or "huh?" during normal conversation (29 percent students vs. 21 percent adults); and tinnitus or ringing in the ears (17 percent students vs. 12 percent adults). Less than half the high school students (49 percent) say they have experienced none of these symptoms, compared to 63 percent of, according to the survey.

Loud volume and prolonged exposure are both risk factors so adults, as well as kids, are vulnerable to hearing loss.

Those ubiquitous white earbuds (companies other than Apple use different colors with a similar design) are part of the problem, according to Dr. Brenda L. Lonsbury-Martin, Ph.D., chief scientist at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and a research professor in the Division of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, Department of Surgery, at Loma Linda University School of Medicine. Unlike headphones that go around the ear, "these go inside the ear canal can be louder because you're projecting that sound into a much smaller cavity with the ear speakers closer to your inner ear where we have a delicate system of sensory cells that are responsible for initiating the hearing process." Those cells, say Lonsbury-Martin "are very, very sensitive to noise damage.


Listen to CBS News Technology Analyst Larry Magid and Dr. Brenda L. Lonsbury-Martin, of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association discuss the budding health problem of earbuds — but don't play this podcast too loudly!


Professor Dean Garstecki of the School of Communication and School of Medicine at Northwestern University says that "earbuds allow sounds in the environment to leak in, often causing the user to turn up the volume."

Another issue with iPods and other MP3 players, according to Lonsbury-Martin and Garstecki, is that their extended battery life allows users to listen for long periods of time. On its Web site, Apple proudly points out that the "iPod can play for up to 20 hours. iPod nano can play up to 14 hours and iPod shuffle can play up to 12 hours on a full charge."

To my surprise, the survey found that adults tend to use their iPods and other MP3 players for longer periods of time than teens, but teens are more likely to crank up the volume. That could be because adults tend to use their systems on long commutes (it's illegal in many states to listen to headphones while driving but millions of people commute by public transportation) or airline flights.

Between listening to my MP3 player and watching in-flight movies, I've been known to have headphones on for several hours in a row on overseas or coast-to-coast flights. What's more, those flights and commutes tend to be in noisy environments so we're naturally inclined to turn up the volume. In remarks on the release of this study, Dr. Brian J. Fligor, Director of Diagnostic Audiology, Children's Hospital Boston, observed that "the majority of people listen at safe levels. But even in the quietest room, some people (between 5 and 25 percent of them) set their music to high levels that might be risky if they listened for too long." Fligor added, "when we ask people to set their music to the level they like, and we make the room as noisy as flying in a typical passenger airplane, they often set the music to a level that would be problematic for more than a couple hours."

According to Lonsbury-Martin, users, if given the choice of turning down the volume or limiting time, "adults and teens preferred to lesson their time but keep their volume up." Yet the survey found that less than half of the parents were willing to place limits on the amount of time their children used these devices. 80 percent of parents say they "would make their children lower the volume," but the study's authors questioned whether how effective this would be "when children are away from parental influence."

So what are safe levels and safe durations? Fligor participated in a study published in the December 2004 "Ear and Hearing Journal" which concluded "listening to the device at a volume setting of "6" (where "10" is all the way up) would be OK for one hour per day or less." However, he cautions that "because some of the smaller in-the-ear earphones boosted the levels higher at level "6" than the over-the-ear headphones, the highest volume setting that would be OK for listening for an hour was lower."

Lonsbury-Martin agrees with those finding but suggests a more simple algorithm. "If you are in an environment in which other people are talking around you (and you have your earbuds in), if you can't hear what they're saying than your volume is too loud." Based on my experience trying to talk with people using these devices, a lot of people are failing to heed Lonsbury-Martin's advice.

Of course portable music players aren't the only dangerous sources of sound. Prolonged exposure to loud cell phones can also damage your hearing says Lonsbury-Martin. Those wireless headsets people are starting to use may be more convenient and make cell phone use safer while driving but if the volume is too high and you're using them for hours at a time, they could damage your hearing in that ear.

And then there are the folks you meet at intersections. Your windows are rolled up and so are theirs yet the sound coming from their audio system is deafening even from your vantage point. "This is unreal," says Lonsbury-Martin. "They've got sound levels as loud as jackhammers and jet engines. They are really playing havoc with their hearing system."

One problem, says Lonsbury-Martin, is that people haven't experienced what it is like to lose their hearing. We all have had the experience of temporary loss of sight – like trying to get around at night when the lights are off – but few of us know what it's like to be deaf. Lonsbury-Martin suggests that you have your kids wear ear plugs for a day and "see what it's like walking around and not being able to hear people very well."



A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

By Larry Magid