Hatchet Checkup: Loud Music

Freshman Julianne Barto knows that if she listens to her iPod too loud, she won’t be listening for long.

“My room, and even my hallway, they’re always pretty noisy,” Barto said. “I used to listen to my iPod to drown it out. Now I go to the library when I have to study.”

When a man sued Apple in 2006 after claiming hearing loss from their ubiquitous music player, he inspired a new public anxiety: Our ears might be under attack.

But this fear was born decades before the iPod. Ever since Sony launched their Walkman in 1979, audiologists have been worried by the presence of headphones that press against the ear and blast music directly into them.

Headphones have since become earbuds that burrow inside of the ear canal, which is even worse, hearing experts say.

Dr. Linda Jacobs-Condit, a clinical audiologist at the GW Speech and Hearing Center, has been performing research on MP3 players’ effects on our ears and said she has no doubt about their deafening capabilities.

“The dangerous thing about what we put in our ears is that the noise cannot dissipate,” she said.

She said that noise above 85 decibels – which is roughly equivalent to the traffic-heavy streets of cities like Washington – is potentially dangerous. After measuring the output of various iPod models with a sound meter, she observed songs as loud as 125 decibels. That is equivalent to the noise of a jet engine.

At that level, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, permanent ear damage can occur within minutes.

Susan Haney, associate director of Student Health Service, thinks that iPods and similar music players are getting too much blame for a broad problem, however. They only add to the everyday din of highways, construction sites, airports and other busy areas. She also said concerts and loud clubs are the culprits for hearing problems among college students.

Noise-induced hearing loss, she said, occurs when tiny hair cells in the ear are damaged by any high-decibel sound. Ringing in the ears is a sign of recovery, but after too much harm, they effectively die.

“The most frequent case I see are from people who are exposed to loud music, but not necessarily from iPods,” she said.

Frequent clubgoers and concert attendees are at risk, as are musicians who regularly practice – and it’s not just garage band members with electric guitars and amplifiers. A lone violin, for example, which lies right beside the ear, can reach volumes of more than 100 decibels.

Each of these noisy situations do have an easy solution: earplugs.

Many students, however, are incredulous about wearing them, especially in public.

“I don’t want to look like some old woman going swimming,” said junior Andrew Merrick. “Especially not when I should be, you know, rocking out.”

But Diane Brewer, associate professor at the Department of Speech and Hearing, said we owe our ears some precautions, especially since most people cannot notice hearing loss until it is too late for anything to be done.

“Hearing loss is cumulative,” she said. “When you add noise-induced hearing loss to natural hearing loss from age, it really detracts from your quality of life.”

If you are willing to listen to the blunt advice of the NIDCD, get earplugs now instead of a hearing aid later. If not, try to limit the amount of time you spend at concerts and clubs, step outside for an occasional quiet break at parties, and distance yourself from blasting speakers as much as possible.

As for iPod owners, if you are willing to part with your iconic white earbuds, switch them for true headphones, preferably a noise-canceling model which will allow for lower volumes. Jacobs-Condit also advised that listeners should turn their MP3 player down to 50 percent of its maximum volume, and limit listening to a few hours at a time.

The next time you are on the Metro and hear music pumping from a neighbor’s headphones, soothe yourself with the thought that you will still be able to listen to that same song 20 years from now.

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