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Audiologist Suggests iPod Users Take Precautions

December 20, 2005 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Turn ‘em down and turn ‘em off. That’s the advice of Dean Garstecki, a Northwestern University audiologist and professor, when it comes to using those ever-present earbuds favored by iPod and MP3 music listeners everywhere.

In the 1980s, audiologists began cautioning lovers of loud music about hearing loss that could potentially result from use of their Walkman or portable compact disc (CD) players when those devices were on the cutting edge of music listening. With iPods the hot holiday gift for music lovers of all ages, Garstecki is encouraging safer use of the popular music listening devices.

“We’re seeing the kind of hearing loss in younger people typically found in aging adults. Unfortunately, the earbuds preferred by music listeners are even more likely to cause hearing loss than the muff-type earphones that were associated with the older devices,” Garstecki said.

Not only are earbuds placed directly into the ear, they can boost the sound signal by as much as six to nine decibels. “That’s the difference in intensity between the sound made by a vacuum cleaner and the sound of a motorcycle engine,” said Garstecki, professor and chair in the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

In addition to the more intense sound signal, today’s music listening devices -- with their longer battery life and their capacity to hold and conveniently play lots of music -- also encourage users to listen for longer periods of time than did the older portable devices. That, too, increases the potential for hearing damage, according to Garstecki.

“I have an audiologist friend at Witchita State University who actually pulls off earphones of students he sees and, in the interest of science, asks if he can measure the output of the signal going into their heads,” said Garstecki. He found that often students were listening at 110 to 120 decibels.

“That’s a sound level that’s equivalent to the measures that are made at rock concerts,” said Garstecki, chairman of Northwestern’s communication sciences and disorders department. “And it’s enough to cause hearing loss after only about an hour and 15 minutes.”

The solution, according to Garstecki, is the 60 percent/60 minute rule. He and other hearing specialists recommend using the MP3 devices, including iPods, for no more than about an hour a day and at levels below 60 percent of maximum volume.

”If music listeners are willing to turn the volume down further still and use different headphones, they can increase the amount of time that they can safely listen,” Garstecki added.

To avoid sustaining permanent hearing loss in the middle ranges --the range required to hear conversation in a noisy restaurant, for example -- Garstecki recommends the use of older style, larger headphones that rest over the ear opening.

Another option is the use of noise-canceling headphones. “Unlike earbuds, noise-canceling headphones quiet or eliminate background noise. That means listeners don’t feel the need to crank up the volume so high as to damage their hearing,” Garstecki said.

“The problem is noise-canceling headphones are more costly and more visible than the tiny earbuds. For image-conscious teenagers and adults, they may be a hard sell.”

Topics: Research