Sound advice: turn down your music

Almost half of teenagers and young adults who listen to sound on their mobile phones, MP3 players and other audio devices, are listening at “unsafe levels” according to a new study by the World Health Organisation.

More than 43 million people, between the ages of 12 and 35, have some sort of hearing loss.

As the world marks International Ear Care Day on Tuesday, world health chiefs warn that young people are putting their hearing at risk by listening to music through headphones at unsafe volume levels.

How much time do your children spend listening to music, headphones seemingly permanently clamped to their heads?

If it is more than an hour a day, there is a chance it is permanently damaging their hearing.

Almost half of teenagers and young adults who listen to sound on their mobile phones, MP3 players and other audio devices, are listening at “unsafe levels” according to a new study by the World Health Organisation.

The organisation’s figures show more than 43 million people, between the ages of 12 and 35, have some sort of hearing loss. And the number is increasing.

In this age group, one in every two people is exposed to unsafe levels of sound from personal audio devices and four in 10 to damaging levels in nightclubs and bars.

The WHO warns that hearing loss has potentially “devastating consequences for physical and mental health, education and employment” and needs to be taken seriously. Its report recommends “limiting the use of personal audio devices to less than one hour a day”.

Dr Shelly Chadna, a technical officer for prevention of deafness and hearing loss at WHO, said the organisation had been working on the issue for many years. “One of the causes is noise induced hearing loss,” she said. “It’s underreported and it’s completely preventible.”

In its Make Listening Safe report, released today to mark International Ear Care Day, the WHO warned the increasing sales of smartphones, with 470 million of the devices shifted globally in 2011 alone, was another indicator of potential risk..

“This increased accessibility and use of personal audio devices for listening to music is coupled with their use at high volume and for long durations,” it said. “Such risk-associated behaviours can permanently damage hearing capacity.”

Smartphone penetration in the UAE is reportedly close to 100 per cent.

A safe “dose” of sound depends on the volume level. The louder the sound, the less time it can be listened to safely. The WHO recommends the highest permissible level of noise exposure in the workplace should not exceed 85dB, for a maximum of eight hours a day. This is the same level of noise as inside a car.

Novo Cinemas, one of the Arabian Gulf’s largest cinema groups, claims to maintain its sound at this volume. “This limit is measured by using a test signal in the amplifiers and measuring the acoustic pressure in the rows closest to the loudspeakers,” a spokesperson explained. “This is not a regulatory limit but it has been an industry standard for more than 30 years.“

Volumes of 100dB, common at sporting venues, concerts, nightclubs and cinemas, should not be heard for more than 15 minutes a day.

There are only a few studies on recreational hearing loss compared with those looking at damage caused by occupational or environmental noise.

According to one study, hearing loss among US teenagers rose from 3.5 per cent to 50.3 per cent between 1994 and 2006.

The number of people listening to music through headphones increased by 75 per cent from 1990 to 2005, the latest figures available, the WHO reported.

“We have every reason to believe that the same trend would be reflected wherever the listening patterns are the same,” Dr Chadha said.

“People say ‘I’d rather enjoy my music and I’ll think about it [hearing loss] if that ever happens’. The reality is it has an impact on one’s life and it’s so easy to avoid it, which is one of the main reasons we need to highlight the issue. We tried to analyse legislation from across the world and we really found very little legislation around recreational hearing loss.”

Legislation in the UAE focuses on construction noise, but it is not clear if anything governs noise levels at concerts, cinemas or bars and clubs.

In Dubai, the municipality has rules about noise on construction or demolition sites. According to the Dubai Local Order 61/91, the outdoor daytime noise level on building sites in residential areas should not exceed 55dB, or 45dB between 8pm and 7am. This increases to 70dB during the day in industrial areas, and 60dB at night. The WHO says 85dB is safe for up to eight hours.

In 2009, the European Commission set a decibel limit for all MP3 players, including those made by Apple. It came into effect in February 2013.

All personal music players sold in European Union countries should now have a sound limit of 85dB. However, individual users can override this setting and push the volume up to 100dB, the same level as a passing subway train. This rule only applies to devices sold in the EU. Items purchased in other parts of the world could, in theory, have much higher maximum volumes.

“There is no legislation that we can consider as an example for the rest of the world to follow, especially about recreational venues and sporting venues,” Dr Chadha said. Implementation of existing laws, she noted, also varied.

The responsibility for preventing further damage to children and young adults falls predominantly to parents, teachers, governments and individuals.

Parents should teach their children early about safe listening and make them aware of the risks of long-term damage.

Governments should also look at new legislation surrounding recreational listening and ensure that existing laws were enforced.

“As they go about their daily lives doing what they enjoy, more and more young people are placing themselves at risk of hearing loss,” said Dr Etienne Krug, director of the department for management of noncommunicable diseases, disability, violence and injury prevention at the WHO. “They should be aware that once you lose your hearing, it won’t come back. Taking simple preventive actions will allow people to continue to enjoy themselves without their hearing at risk.”

The WHO urges those most at-risk of hearing loss to get regular hearing tests. It suggests workplaces, schools and communities hold screenings.

Establishing a safe listening level is easy, said Dr Chadha. “If you listen with headphones in a quiet space set a volume level that is comfortable, but at the same time allows you to hear a conversation going on outside. This is a safe level. You could listen to this volume for many hours.”

Loud volume, meanwhile, is more damaging through headphones than through loud speakers, according to Dr Ahmed Baha, a specialist in emergency medicine at Burjeel hospital. He said the problem was compounded by the popularity and convenience of headphones.

“Many people exploit the acoustic isolation of headphones, to listen at higher volumes, which they can do without disturbing people around them,” he said.

“However, the risk of hearing damage from headphones is higher than loud speakers at comparable volumes due to the close coupling of the transducers to the ears.” Using speakers in a closed space, such as in a car, he said, could also be extremely damaging.

Despite this, Dr Baha said listeners could hear more musical details through headphones, and could appreciate their favourite songs at lower volumes.

He recommended that people protect themselves by setting their devices to 60 per cent audio levels, using noise reducing headsets – which suppress background noise – and wearing ear plugs in loud environments, such as concerts or the cinema.

Dr Baha said he has not seen many cases of young people with hearing loss, except for a patient who temporarily lost his hearing in Egypt after a firework exploded near his head. However, he emphasised this was misleading as permanent hearing loss was rising and largely untreatable – even with surgery.

“Actually, people don’t come in because hearing loss is not an acute incident, it’s chronic, long-term. But nowadays you can find one in five teenagers has some form of hearing loss and from 1980 to 1990, the figure increased by about 30 per cent.”