In the 1960s, young people walked around with a transistor radio next to their ear. In the 1970s it was a boom-box on their shoulder. In the 80s, it was a Walkman on their belt with featherweight earphones.
While any prolonged, loud sounds in close proximity to your ears can be harmful, today's “ear buds,” the mini-earphones that connect media players and smartphones directly to your ear canals, are a growing cause of concern.
According to a Vanderbilt University-led study published in Journal of the American Medical Association, hearing loss is now affecting 20 percent of U.S. adolescents ages 12 to 19, which is a five percent increase over the past 15 years. Are ear buds to blame?
A separate study by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association found that teenagers typically listen to devices at a louder volume than adults, and that these same teenagers already have symptoms of hearing loss.
Kristina Rigsby, Au.D., a pediatric audiologist at the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center, says listening to devices with levels over 80 dB for extended periods of time may be dangerous.
Prolonged exposure to high volume exhausts the auditory system, she explains. Over time, the hair cells in the ear start to degenerate because they aren’t receiving proper blood flow and oxygen.
“When you are listening to these devices at high levels and for long periods of time, you are putting yourself at risk for hearing loss,” Rigsby said. “Hearing loss is permanent, so once you’ve done the damage, there’s no getting it back.”
How loud is too loud? If parents can hear sound coming from their child’s headphones while they are wearing them, it’s too loud, Rigsby said. A good rule of thumb is the “60/60 rule,” which means using only 60 percent of the device’s volume level for no more than 60 minutes at a time. After 60 minutes, give your ears a break for at least an hour, she said.
Courts have heard enough
Those who ignore the warnings and wind up damaging their hearing shouldn't expect too much sympathy from the legal system. A federal appeals court in 2010 unanimously tossed a class action alleging that Apple failed to warn consumers that using iPod earbud-style headphones at full volume can lead to hearing loss. The 3-0 ruling by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court's 2008 decision to dismiss the case.
The suit, filed by lead plaintiffs Joseph Birdsong and Bruce Waggoner in 2006, alleged that iPods' maximum volume of 115 decibels, equivalent to a helicopter taking off, puts users in danger of permanent hearing loss. Further, the plaintiffs said that Apple's signature earbuds the white-and-silver headphones that fit snugly inside users' ears provide less protection against hearing loss than traditional headphones.
In June 2008, Judge James Ware of the Northern District of California dismissed the suit, ruling that the plaintiffs failed to prove that they had suffered any actual harm as a result of the headphones' alleged defect. The Ninth Circuit upheld his ruling, with judge David Thompson writing that the suit suggest[s] only that users have the option of using an iPod in a risky manner, not that the headphones were inherently defective.
While Apple does alert consumers that continually playing music at a high volume can lead to hearing problems, the plaintiffs contended that this warning was too vague. They said that Apple had a responsibility to tell consumers the maximum safe decibel level, and to sell iPods with a device telling users how loud their music is at any given moment.
What to do
Rather than using ear buds, consider investing in high-quality, “noise cancelling” headphones that cover the entire ear. Ear buds allow more background noise to seep in, so users often turn up the volume to compensate.
But before you go for a stroll with your new noise-cancelling headphones, it might pay to listen to warnings from researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center, who say distracted walking is becoming as dangerous as distracted driving.
With the proliferation of iPods and smartphones than can access music services, pedestrians often walk listening to loud music, and therefore can't hear trains, buses, trucks and cars around them.
Serious injuries to pedestrians listening to headphones have more than tripled in six years, according to their research. In many cases, the cars or trains are sounding horns that the pedestrians cannot hear, leading to fatalities in nearly three-quarters of cases.
“Everybody is aware of the risk of cell phones and texting in automobiles, but I see more and more teens distracted with the latest devices and headphones in their ears,” said lead author Richard Lichenstein, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of pediatric emergency medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “Unfortunately as we make more and more enticing devices, the risk of injury from distraction and blocking out other sounds increases.”
The researchers looked at 116 accident cases from 2004 to 2011 in which injured pedestrians were found to be using headphones. Seventy percent of the 116 accidents resulted in death to the pedestrian.