The Danger of Headphones
It was October in Cherryville, N.C., when a car struck a headphone-wearing pedestrian who was crossing a busy street. A similar event occurred in Australia, where a train ran over a 15-year-old girl who couldn’t hear the warning signals because of music pumping through her ear buds. Incidents such as these have prompted some to think about the wisdom and safety of such prolific devices.
Tragic accidents aside, earphones pose other inherent safety hazards of which students should be aware, said Amy Hunter, clinical assistant professor of audiology at the UA.
“Most people are listening to their iPods or MP3 players at a more elevated level than they should,” Hunter said.
The person might not realize their music is playing at a hazardous level, because the devices often are used to mask other noises, she said.
“As that generation starts to get older, with the continued use of the ear buds at the loudness levels they are listening to them, we’re going to start seeing more and more noise-induced hearing loss at younger ages,” Hunter said.
“The general rule is that if you can stand 3 feet away from the person and can hear the tonal quality of the music, it’s too loud,” she said.
Noise-induced hearing loss occurs when sensitive structures in the inner ear, hair cells, are damaged because of sounds that are too loud, too close or last too long. The delicate structures “are small sensory cells that convert sound energy into electrical signals that travel to the brain,” according to the National Institutes of Health. Damaged hair cells cannot grow back.
Because it is still early in the trend, research is ongoing regarding the effect of listening to earphones at elevated levels for extended times. Audiologists are noticing hearing loss among younger age groups who have had no other loud noise exposure, Hunter said.
Natural, gradual hearing loss commonly appears in people in their 40s and 50s, according to the NIH.
“Approximately 15 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 (or 26 million Americans) have high frequency hearing loss that may have been caused by exposure to loud sounds or noise at work or in leisure activities,” according to the NIH.
Damage to high frequencies of hearing can be a sign that the hearing loss was caused by exposure to loud music through ear buds rather than occupational hazards, Hunter said.
Audiologists typically recommend listening to music at half the maximum volume for no longer than four hours a day. If someone listens for more than four hours a day, there is an increased chance of hearing damage, she said.
Ear buds that have a buffer inside them are safer than those that often come with a device, although the ear buds with the buffer adapter are often more expensive, Hunter said.
A person might also consider earphones that have a noise-cancel system that helps drown out ambient noise so a listener will not be tempted to increase the volume level on the device, she said.
The new speech and hearing clinic on Razorback Road offers hearing screenings for students at a discounted price.
The clinic operates as a laboratory for speech pathology and audiology students, and it soon will affiliate with the Pat Walker Health Center to educate students about the dangers of noise-induced hearing loss, Hunter said.