Volume advice falls on deaf ears

High volume levels in MP3 players are causing hearing problems for people in their 30s, writes JOHN CRADDEN

IF YOU have an Apple iPod, you may be among those owners who find the highest volume level for listening through your earbuds is not quite high enough.

If so, just type in the words “Apple iPod European volume limit” into a Google search and you will be presented with hundreds of entries that reveal ways to get around the lower 100dB (decibel) volume limit that is set for iPods (and all other makes of MP3 player) sold in the European market.

This open defiance of efforts by the EU to set safe listening limits is the sort of attitude that exasperates deafness campaigners. After all, the limits are there to protect our hearing, they say.

Niall Keane, chief executive of Deafhear, says its efforts to combat internal noise pollution caused by loud music at concerts and listening to MP3 players are often derided as attempts to ruin people’s enjoyment.

He cites a proposal his organisation made to Dublin City Council (DCC) to fit power cut-off devices on speakers used for open-air concerts in the city in a bid to stop bands soaring over the 75 decibel noise level set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

There was a lot of enthusiasm for the idea when it was first floated around, but then it quickly “died a death”, he says. “I think it came to be looked at as a bit of a party pooper.”

Last year, U2 were fined just €36,000 by DCC for breaking this noise rule no less than 12 times during their concerts at Croke Park.

“If you suffer lightheadedness, ringing or dizziness after a loud gig, then damage has already been done,” says Keane.

Keane’s concern about MP3 players centres on the use of earbuds. “The issue with using earbuds isn’t so much the noise but the sound pressure going into your ears,” he says.

“With speakers and headphones, the bones around your ear and jaw can absorb some of the pressure, but with earbuds, the pressure has nowhere to go except straight into your inner ear.”

Recent research by private hearing aid providers Hidden Hearing found that 51 per cent of MP3 users are listening to their players at above 80dB for up to two hours a day, while one in five has the volume at 100dB or more.

“This is the equivalent of hearing a pneumatic drill 10 feet away,” says the company’s medical liaison officer, Dr Nina Byrnes, who also presents RTÉ’s Health of the Nation.

“As a result of years of listening to personal music players at loud volumes, Hidden Hearing is seeing a big increase in the number of people, sometimes as young as 30, suffering from hearing loss that would be typical of a 70 year old.”

The European Commission now wants personal music players to default to a “safe” sound level of 80dB and to warn users if they turn up the volume too high.

The proposal was made following a report by the EU’s scientific committee on emerging health risks, which said that 5-10 per cent of people who use personal music players habitually set the volumes higher than 89dB, levels the World Health Organisation says are high enough to cause permanent damage if listened to for more than an hour a day for five years.

However, Niall Kitson, editor of digital media magazine PC Live!, is sceptical about the link between the use of personal media players and hearing loss, arguing that there is no hard evidence yet of long-term detrimental effects.

“As no upward trend has been definitively identified, you’ll see all sides claiming victory. The EU for ‘preventing a catastrophe’, manufacturers saying their products aren’t harmful in the first place but are happy to play ball because ‘they care’, and kids who will listen to whatever they want at whatever volume they damn well please,” he says.

It’s almost a cliché to hear about DJs slowly going deaf, but for Adrian Dussart (28), the side effect of a relatively short period spent DJ-ing isn’t hearing loss, but a condition that has almost the opposite effect.

Dussart suffers from hyperacusis, which means he finds everyday sounds almost too much to bear, and has to wear earplugs regularly. “Everything I hear and is considered normal to others is for me loud and painful,” he says. “In some situations, it’s almost impossible to stay more than 10 seconds because of the noise.”

Dussart, who also has bad tinnitus, believes the onset of his two conditions is clearly linked to his time spent working as a DJ, but also a 12-hour long party he once attended in a dome in Paris, during which he wore no earplugs.

He blames no one else but himself for the damage done to his hearing. “It is everyone’s responsibility. We have two ears and they are fragile, and we can’t replace them.”

This article first appeared in the Irish Times

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