Personal audio system use is bad for your ears

Photo credit: Zen Chung from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

On June 10, our noise colleague Jan Mayes presented a paper at the 180th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America titled “Personal Audio System Use Can Harm Auditory Health.” I was co-author, and participated in a press conference organized by the ASA before her presentation. This News Medical article is our first media coverage from that press conference, in a UK medical news website. This Healthline mention is our second. We hope there will be more.

The reporter gets the facts exactly right. Personal audiosystem use is bad for your ears. Personal audio systems, also called personal listening devices or personal music players, are a sound content source and headphones or earbuds, so the user can listen to music or podcasts or books on tape without disturbing others.

MP3 players and smartphones are examples of PAS, but sometimes they have video capabilities as well, such as tablet devices. PAS use is widespread, especially among young people, who listen at high volumes many days a week for hours each day.

The result is auditory damage–hearing loss and tinnitus–in young people, already found in anecdotal reports from audiologists and ENT physicians but not generally found on epidemiological studies of hearing in young people. This is because loud sound damages hair cells in the cochlea, but it takes loss of approximately 40% of the hair cells for the hearing loss to be detected by standard audiometry techniques. Research techniques, though, show the auditory damage.

I don’t expect young people, including children as young as 3, to understand the risks of PAS use, but their parents and teachers should.

Unfortunately, information about safe listening is scarce, and many people, including a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, think that 85 decibels (dB)is a safe listening level. It isn’t.

The 85 dB standard is derived from the occupational noise exposure standard.  As I said in the linked article, “[a] noise level that won’t prevent hearing loss in factory workers or heavy equipment operators is far too high for a young child whose ears have to last an entire lifetime.”

Looking for a safe PAS is like looking for a safe cigarette. You won’t find one. Headphones with a volume limit are safer than those without this feature, as are noise-canceling or isolating headphones or earbuds, but it’s far safer not to use PAS.

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