iHear: Let’s Keep It That Way; High Volumes Lead to Higher Risk

New Study Cautions Loud Music Played Through mp3 Earbuds Can Lead to Permanent Hearing Loss


Published: November 13, 2008

Last April marked the sale of the 100 millionth iPod, making it the “fastest selling music player in history,” according to Apple. Though not surprising in today’s digital age, this statistic reveals an overwhelming number of listeners may be damaging their hearing by blasting personal music players at loud volumes.

The European Union Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) released a study in September detailing the effects of high volume settings on music player users. Results indicated that 5-10 percent of listeners risk permanent loss of hearing if they listen to their MP3 players or other audio devices at a high volume for more than seven hours a week for five years.

Cristina Brito, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’12, listens to her iPod at a “deafening” volume, according to her roommates.

“I don’t listen to it that loud for long periods of time, but I have it loud when I need to block things out, like when I’m studying. It helps me concentrate,” Brito said. She uses ear-buds, an alternative to old-school headphones, yet permanent hearing damage could be the price she pays for eliminating distractions.

Ear-buds are conveniently sold with most MP3 players, yet headphones may be a safer alternative because music isn’t played directly into the eardrum.

According to a recent New York Times article referencing the study, “Personal stereos and portable phones with a music-playing facility are considered a particular threat because ear-bud type earphones lead to a greater sound exposure than other types of listening devices.”

Alyson Cermak, FCLC ’12, claims to listen to her iPod at “one of the lowest settings,” not because she’s concerned about her hearing but because she doesn’t like her music loud.

“I tend to have it really low so there’s not as much concern about my hearing. I’m not one of those people where you can hear it from across the room,” she said.

The study revealed that the effect of high volume on one’s eardrums could not only cause permanent hearing loss but also weaken learning abilities and cause memory impairment. Tinnitus, also known as a “phantom perception of sound,” could be the worst case scenario. This hearing impairment includes imagined buzzing, hissing and ringing noises from inside the ear due to overexposure of high volume sounds.

The iPod has a manual volume setting that can reach a maximum level of 115 decibels, ominously close to the human pain threshold of 120-140 decibels.

“I don’t think you should stop listening to iPods, but people should be more aware,” Cermak said.

Experts express concern about the potential dangers of students’ listening habits.

“[It’s important to] inform our students of just how damaging their MP3 and iPods can be if they use these devices continually throughout the day and if they have turned up the sound to a very high level,” said Joan Roberts, professor of chemistry at FCLC. “The high volume of particular musical sounds causes permanent hearing damage, even in the young.”

Brito believes that companies such as Apple don’t effectively specify the dangers of their products.

“They should provide information and try to make the best possible headphones to prevent that. If ear-buds are more dangerous, then don’t sell ear-buds,” she said.

Brito recommends creating earphones or music players that have lower settings and don’t allow listeners the ability to increase the volume.

“If you don’t give me the option, I won’t do it,” Brito said.

While the personal music player has become a necessity for most college students, using them at high volumes to block out background noise may not be worth the damage they cause.

There are simple precautions that students can take to prevent hearing loss.

“Lower the volume, and take off your earphones for long periods of time each day to give your ear a chance to recover,” Roberts said.  Despite being one of the last preoccupations on students’ minds, it may be beneficial to heed this advice and not take your hearing for granted.