Portable listening devices can cause hearing problems

Posted Dec. 07, 2008, at 9:53 p.m.

This week’s topic is related to the holiday shopping season, but it has less to do with some of the most popular gift items than with their potential for causing hearing problems.

Many of us may think that hearing loss is a natural part of the aging process. However, growing numbers of young people are losing part or all of their hearing, and in many cases the causes are largely preventable.

Those portable listening devices may be doing more harm to the current generation of listeners than tons of machinery did to the ears of our ancestors. The informal term for job-related hearing loss was “boilermaker’s ear,” since hearing problems were common among the workers who built steam boilers.

Over the years the work environment has led all causes of hearing loss. But today’s generation of portable listening device devotees is making statistical gains that have many experts worried.

It’s not just the miniature music machines that many youngsters play at such volume that the tunes seem to be leaking out of their ears. Cell phones also have been cited as a potential enemy of hearing among the young.

A researcher in India studied 100 young cell phone users and found that those who used them an hour or more a day for four years suffered noticeable hearing loss in the higher frequencies. The hearing loss was greater in the ear to which the person generally held the phone.

Loud, prolonged noises (no comment here on musical styles) can damage the tender hair nerve cells in part of the inner ear where sound information is transmitted to the brain. These cells can recover from short-term exposure; it’s longer-term noise that’s the problem.

Today’s personal music devices can store thousands of songs and play them at 120 decibels — that’s louder than a chain saw. Listening in a noisy environment means users may pump up the volume even further to drown out the surroundings. Couple that with ear buds that concentrate the sound into the ear and souped-up batteries which keep playing for hours at a time.

Apple includes a warning with its iPods that “permanent hearing loss may occur if earphones or headphones are used at high volume.” Some experts urge users to turn the volume no higher than 60 decibels and to limit the duration of their listening.

Will teens be able to hear those warnings? Maybe, but they may not care. A study from the Netherlands shows many teens adopt an it-can’t-happen-to-me attitude. Our best advice to parents considering gifts may be to look at earphones that cover the ear, shutting out the outside noise.

On the gift card, wish them a happy — and quieter — New Year.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or e-mail contacexdir@live.com.

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