A new lawsuit and medical experts are making noise over the health risks posed to users of portable music players such as Apple’s iPod, which can play music loud enough to lead to hearing loss.
Hearing specialists around the country, including at GW, said young adults are not careful enough when using potentially deafening portable music players. They are emphasizing the dangers of playing music loudly.
“The first issue is the output levels that the iPods and other (portable music) players are capable of,” said Linda Jacobs-Condit, GW’s senior audiologist in the Speech and Hearing Science Department.
“They can go up to 120 decibels,” Jacobs-Condit said. “130 decibels is the threshold for pain and 140 is definitely damaging within seconds.”
James Kiel Patterson of Louisiana filed a suit against Apple in U.S. District Court in California last month because he claims the iPod that he purchased has dangerously high volume settings without appropriate warnings.
The suit claims that iPods are “inherently defective in design and are not sufficiently adorned with adequate warnings regarding the likelihood of hearing loss.”
Jacobs-Condit agreed with Patterson, adding that the level of volume that popular music players can reach has increased as technology advances.
Apple did not return phone calls from The Hatchet before press time. Apple has also declined to comment to other publications regarding the iPod lawsuit.
The issue originated in the late 1980s after people started to feel the negative health effects of devices such as the Sony Walkman, Jacobs-Condit said. The Sony Walkman is only capable of producing 100 decibels, according to a 1990 New York Times article.
Jacobs-Condit said music played too loudly damages nerve cells and can make people feel like they have cotton or ringing in their ears.
“Once the nerves are damaged or destroyed, there is no way to get them back,” Jacobs-Condit said. “With minimal exposure they might recover, but over time, their chances of recovery are lessened.”
Jacobs-Condit suggested that portable music player users should listen at half volume to ensure healthy hearing. Ryan Hurm, a graduate student in the School of Speech and Hearing, began to reconsider his iPod listening habits after learning that he had slight noise-induced hearing loss in his left ear.
“It has made me a little more aware and worried about my hearing even though the loss doesn’t noticeably affect my hearing,” Hurm said. “It has caused me to listen to my music at a lower volume than I use to.”
Hurm added that when he became aware of his hearing loss he switched from using Apple’s standard earphones to Apple’s silicone noise-reduction headphones.
“They are pretty much the same thing, but the ones I use now greatly reduce the surrounding noise,” said Hurm. “As a result, I don’t have to put my iPod on such a high volume like before.”
Earbuds that do not fit correctly can be dangerous because they cause the user to raise the volume of the iPod to drown out the outside noise, Jacobs-Condit said.
She added that Apple’s standard headphones – the signature white buds that black silhouettes don in commercials – could be more damaging than normal over-the-ear headphones because of how close they come to the ear canal.
“The closer you get the sound source to the eardrum, the louder the output can become,” Jacobs-Condit said.
New studies have not only found that listening to music loudly can be a major factor contributing to hearing loss; they have also concluded that young adults are not taking the issue seriously.
An online survey conducted in April by Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health polled approximately 10,000 visitors of MTV.com to assess what type of medical problems worried teenagers.
Roland Eavey, director of Pediatric Otolaryngology at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, told The Hatchet that teenagers are not worried enough about hearing loss.
“Only 8 percent of the people polled were worried about their hearing,” Eavey said. “Yet two-thirds of the respondents had experienced hearing loss and ringing in the ears after coming out of clubs.”
“There is obviously a disconnect here,” Eavey said.
Teens should not try to drown out ambient noise by turning up the volume of their iPod, Eavey said.
“Your brain likes the sound of music, but it might not like the noise of a jackhammer at the same volume,” Eavey said. “If you’re in a noisy environment and it’s already too noisy, don’t turn your iPod volume up over that noise.”
According to the Patterson lawsuit, in 2002 Apple modified its iPod for French consumers because of a law limiting the volume of portable music players to 100 decibels.