How the iPod and Other Audio Devices Are Destroying Your Ears

Damage from music is not always permanent, but some audiologists have seen mp3-inflicted issues so strong that hearing aids were needed

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Portable music players may be contributing to permanent hearing loss among many casual listeners, gradually leading to the inability to discern speech. An iPod's maximum volume is more than 10 times as loud as the recommended listening setting, audiologists say, and the sensory damage caused by prolonged listening is irreversible.

Since the iPod was introduced in 2001, hearing loss has been an obvious problem among young patients of Brian Fligor, an audiologist at the Boston Children's Hospital.

"It depends on what you call major hearing loss, but there are a couple of cases (among children and teenagers) where using headphones contributed to a person's hearing loss that was enough that they needed to use hearing aids," Fligor said. These cases generally involved other factors contributing to the problem but were mainly music-related.

Hearing damage from loud music is not always permanent, but prolonged exposure to loud noise can lead to health problems such as hypertension and tinnitus, or ringing in the ears.

The biggest concern is that as hearing worsens over time, people may lose some ability to distinguish consonants and understand speech.

MUSIC-INDUCED HEARING LOSS

Noise-induced hearing loss occurs, simply, when sensitive cells in the inner ear are exposed to loud noises. These "hair cells," which convert sound energy into electrical impulses that are sent to the brain, can't grow back once they are damaged.

According to the National Institutes of Health, "long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss" -- noise louder than city traffic but not as loud as a lawnmower. The louder the sound, the shorter the time it takes to damage hair cells.

At maximum volume, an iPod reaches about 103 decibels, which can cause permanent hearing loss in a matter of minutes while listening through ear buds. In-ear headphones, like the earbuds that come with an iPod, send loud music straight into your ear and directly toward sensitive cells.

Noise-amplifying headphones, such as the kind DJs might use in clubs to hear over background club music, can produce louder sounds and take less time to cause irreversible damage. Just 15 minutes of listening at 100 dB can be harmful, according to the NIH.

Hearing loss among musicians can affect their abilities to discern pitch, perceive loudness, and recognize where sounds are coming from, according to Kathy Peck, executive director of Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers. Peck said she has noticed a trend among DJs and hip-hop artists losing their ability to hear bass frequencies.

"If you lose your low end, that's like hearing a train go by, so that's very dangerous," Peck said, as opposed to losing the ability to detect high frequencies like birds chirping.

After years of performing, David Beltran has started to notice that he has trouble recognizing lower frequencies through his left ear, and deep voices sound muffled when he talks on the phone on his left side.

The 27-year-old Chicago DJ said that people in his industry often have no choice but to have their headphones at maximum volume for hours at a time -- and they often must stand near monitor speakers, adding to the problem.

Presented by

Sara J. Martinez is a reporter for the Medill News Service. She was previously a Pulliam Fellow at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix and a Dow Jones News Fund intern at The Journal News in White Plains, New York.

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