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Pods, iPain: Is Earful Harmful?

February 22, 2007 By:
Ashley Fodor, JE Feature
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 When Dani Busgasch exercises on the treadmill, she listens to music on her iPod to help get through her workout. But after reading recent reports associating the digital music player with hearing loss, she's begun being a little more careful.

She now turns down the volume and uses the larger, more traditional headphones that are supposedly safer than the tiny white earbuds that came with the popular Apple product.

"I'm a lot more conscious about the dangers of hearing loss," said Busgasch, a student at William Patterson University in Wayne, N.J.

Actually, Busgasch is unusually conscientious about the health effects of MP-3 players. More typical are listeners like Charlotte Paulson, a student at New York University, who hasn't changed her behavior one bit.

When Paulson learned that iPods can damage hearing, she said that she was "shocked" that a product so heavily marketed to young people could actually harm them, but admitted that she doesn't plan on altering her habits.

"When I listen, I like to listen hard," said Paulson.

Some Troubling Statistics
She's not alone, according to the results of a 2006 poll on the use of personal electronic devices by Zogby International. Although teenagers expressed concern about hearing loss from loud music, 58 percent said they weren't planning on reducing their listening time; 64 percent said they had no plans to purchase safer earphones; and 31 percent said they weren't about to turn down the volume.

In another study published in Pediatrics, a medical journal, only 8 percent of young people who answered a survey on an MTV Web site, considered hearing loss to be "a very big problem."

That's troubling to many experts, who say that listening to portable digital music players at high volume for long periods can cause tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and, over time, can lead to permanent hearing loss.

"Young people generally don't think anything will happen to them, and since they are enjoying the musical experience without immediate pain, I doubt that most will do anything to prevent hearing loss," explained Maurice Miller, Ph.D., professor of speech language, pathology and audiology at New York University.

Some are calling upon MP-3 manufacturers to issue prominent warnings about the risks associated with their products, or to set limits on the volume at which they can be played. Earlier this year, a Louisiana man filed a lawsuit against Apple in federal court alleging that iPods cause hearing loss and asking the manufacturer to install software to prevent users from listening at dangerous levels.

But Miller and others don't think warnings or sound-level limits will do nearly enough.

"These devices should not be used at full volume," he said. "If sound is spilling out and audible to someone other than the user, then it is being used at a potentially dangerous level."

Using outer headphones instead of ear buds that pump sound directly into the eardrum is another safety measure, according to Shelly Borgia, a certified audiologist at Park Avenue Acoustics and Audiology in New York City.

She stated: "If you can't have a conversation over the volume at which your iPod is playing, you need to turn it down." 

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