If you didn’t already own an iPod, you probably got one for Christmas. Failing that, you probably bought yourself one as a New Year’s gift like my friend Craig. Since about the 3rd generation (Summer 2003) the iPod has begun to be the ubiquitous collegiate accessory. As one of the first dozen or so at BYU to own one, I pretty much know everything there is to know about iPods. But I didn’t know this.
A great article (subscription required: email me a request for full text and I will forward you the article) in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal calls attention to one of the results of the ubiquitous iPod: hearing loss. What Jane Spencer calls “iPod ear” is beginning to become more and more common. The problem with MP3 players is on the surface no different from earlier problems with Sony Walkmans and other portable CD players. The difference, says Ms. Spencer, is the duration of listening that accompanies the new technology. With longer playlists and longer lasting batteries, the exposure to loud music grows and is resulting in earlier instances of hearing loss.
Hearing specialists at centers such as the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles, Children’s Hospital Boston and the American Academy of Audiology say the effect they are seeing now may be only the beginning, because accumulated noise damage can take years before it causes noticeable problems. “We’re only seeing a few teenagers with hearing loss at this point,” says Brian Fligor, director of diagnostic audiology at Children’s Hospital Boston. But, he adds that many others may have subtle hearing loss that they have yet to recognize, “and by the time they do, they’ll have done substantial damage.”
You may not notice the damage done to your ears now, and that is one of difficulties in battling hearing loss.
Any idiot knows that going to a rock concert will leave you with a ringing, sort of dull sound in you ears. This has obviously dulled the sense of hearing. Typically, after a few hours, hearing returns to normal and one is able to hear everything as before The Killers latest show.
There are two ways that noise exposure leads to hearing damage. Brief exposures to extremely loud sounds, like gunfire, can cause permanent damage. But consistent exposure to even moderate-level loud sounds wears out the hair cells in the inner ear, which are responsible for acute hearing abilities. When these cells are damaged by noise exposure — like a loud concert — they typically recover after two days of rest. With repeated exposure to loud sounds, however, the hair cells’ ability to recover weakens. Eventually the hair cells die, leading to permanent hearing loss.
A 2004 study at Children’s Hospital Boston sought to set a safe exposure time for recreational listening by adapting the government standards for workplace noise. According to NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the safe exposure limit is 85 decibels for eight hours a day. (A typical vacuum cleaner emits 85 decibels.) Every time the volume level increases by three decibels, the safe exposure time drops by half.
Every study cited in this article stresses the importance of avoiding the short, loud noises (bull horn, gunshots) and prolonged exposure to above normal or average sounds–iPod listening falls into this category.
I’m not familiar with their music, because, unlike many of your parents, my father listened to Motown rather than Led Zepplin. A recent blog post by Pete Townshend of The Who showed the consequences of listening to music for extended periods.
Mr. Townshend warned the iPod generation about the dangers of hearing damage, and said he blames his own severe hearing loss on years of using studio headphones. “Hearing loss is a terrible thing because it cannot be repaired,” wrote Mr. Townshend. “If you use an iPod or anything like it, or your child uses one, you MAY be OKâ€¦ But my intuition tells me there is terrible trouble ahead.”
This article came as a bit of a wake-up call. I sometimes use listening to my iPod as an excuse to avoid talking to people as I walk across campus. But seriously, if like me, you listen to your iPod as you ski or do other athletic activity, be careful. I think the advice about being able to hear normal conversation with the earbuds in and the music on is good. Try that.