Ear buds + music at high volumes = future hearing loss?
A walk through any fitness facility at any hour will reveal that the majority of exercisers on cardio equipment have their ears plugged into some kind of listening device. Recent research is suggesting that the current ear-bud generation may turn out to be the hearing-loss generation. Steps are being taken in Europe to reduce the risk to hearing and Health Canada also needs to take up the challenge.
In Europe an estimated 5%–10% of personal music player (PMP) users could develop permanent hearing loss if they listen to their devices at high volume for more than an hour a day.1 In Canada, workers are regulated to a maximum exposure of no more than 8 hours of noise levels at 85-90 decibels.2 Yet some player/headphone combinations can produce sound levels reaching 120 or 130 decibels: as loud as a thunderclap, a jackhammer, or a jet taking off 30 metres away. Although PMP users do tend to stay below these high volume levels in quiet environments, the use of headphones, particularly in noisy environments, encourages listeners to turn up the volume such that their hearing is put at risk.
A British study reported that 72 out of 110 PMP users listened at volumes above 85 decibels.3 Australian research measuring the PMP levels of passers-by by found that 25% were listening at similarly high levels.4
Potential hearing damage from such noise exposure includes permanent ringing in the ears, hypersensitivity to loud sounds, lost ability to hear certain sounds, and difficulties understanding speech in noisy environments.5 Experts also worry that younger ears may be particularly susceptible to loud noise and even more vulnerable to subsequent hearing loss later in life.6In early 2011, Europe passed standards requiring PMPs to have a default maximum volume of 85 decibels (80 decibels for products marketed for children). Although users still have the option of setting the volume higher, they will be intermittently reminded that their player is above recommended limits. Manufacturers have two years to meet these standards. Ear bud headphones may actually produce a sound output up to 10 decibels greater than standard headphones.
It is important for Health Canada to follow the European lead and use the new Canada Consumer Product Safety Act to require similar changes to PMPs sold in Canada. Health Canada and others could also go a step further. Some headphones that now have maximum volume limits, ensuring that the listener is never exposed to more than 85 decibels, could be made mandatory for all headphones marketed in Canada.
Research is needed to scrutinize the effectiveness of these measures. Perhaps the default volume limit will have little impact on keeping users from turning up their device volumes, and therefore have little effect on the projected trend toward hearing loss.
Although it may take years for much of the damage to occur, it is important that PMP-related hearing changes be monitored. The significant negative impact of hearing damage on people’s lives is worth taking steps towards preventing.
European Commission, Directorate-General for Health & Consumers, Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks. Potential health risks of exposure to noise from personal music players and mobile phones including a music playing function. Brussels: European Commission; 2008.
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS). 2011. Noise – Occupational Exposure Limits in Canada. Accessed Sept. 21, 2011 at: http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/phys_agents/exposure_can.html
BBC News. MP3 users “risking hearing loss” 2007 Sept 7 (accessed 16 July 2011).
Williams W. Noise exposure from personal stereo use. Int J Audiol 2005;44(4):231–236.
Khatter K. Personal music players and hearing loss: Are we deaf to the risks? Open Medicine 2011; 5(3):137-138.
European Commission, Directorate-General for Health & Consumers, Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks. Green facts: Personal music players & hearing. Brussels: European Commission; 2008.