iPod Users Court Deafness

Wearing a jet-black Led Zeppelin T-shirt and a silver stud through her septum, Margaret Connelly is similar to a lot of teenagers: she likes to crank her tunes. And, as with many of her kindred spirits, she enjoys having her music with her just about all the time.

iPod Users Court Deafness

Wearing a jet-black Led Zeppelin T-shirt and a silver stud through her septum, Margaret Connelly is similar to a lot of teenagers: she likes to crank her tunes. And, as with many of her kindred spirits, she enjoys having her music with her just about all the time. So, this summer, the 17-year-old Toronto high school student got a pink iPod Mini. Now filled with 849 songs, the iPod accompanies Connelly on the subway, on walks, whenever she's alone and out of earshot of a radio, and "during tests at school especially." The few times she gives the volume much thought, it's not about whether she may be damaging her hearing - it's about turning up the music loud enough to drown out the subway racket. Connelly doesn't always play her iPod full blast, but when she does, the effect shuts out everything else. "If the song's got a really good bass," Connelly says, "it's, like, deafening."

Music has long been able to rock, soothe, inspire and, when abused - steal one's hearing. But with the advent of portable MP3 players like the iPod, hearing loss at a young age threatens to grow to alarmingly high proportions, say industry watchers. Studies suggest one in seven children and youth aged five to 19 years has already suffered some form of hearing loss, says Marshall Chasin, director of auditory research at the Musicians' Clinics of Canada. And because of the type of ear damage these children exhibit, audiologists like Chasin are able to rule out hearing loss caused by everyday noise, and instead can, with confidence, lay the blame squarely on loud music.

Those studies tend to be of children who didn't have iPods, introduced in 2001. They went to concerts and clubs and listened to other portable music players, like the Sony Walkman. As the iPod Nation booms, though, experts worry the problem will only worsen. (Apple Canada said no one was available for comment.) But getting kids to turn down the volume can be difficult. "If you say, 'Don't do this or don't do that,' they'll give you the finger," Chasin says. "I think the best way to do it is to just say, 'It's okay to turn it up when your favourite song comes up, just turn down the volume after that.' Moderation is the major issue."

Noise destroys the microscopic, hair-like cells within the cochlea, that structure in the ear that resembles a snail shell, and can result in ringing, called tinnitus. That can go away after about 16 hours, says Chasin (tinnitus can also be chronic), but it should be regarded as a warning that the ear has been abused. Tommy Choo, a senior audiologist with the Canadian Hearing Society, says the damage to the ear's hair cells is a bit like ruining the grass. "If a marching band walks all over your lawn, it just stomps everything to hell," Choo says. "Sooner or later, the grass recovers a bit, but every time you trample it, there are little bits that never come back. It's permanent damage."

There are many types of MP3 players, but the iPod dominates the global market. Since the device's introduction, Apple has shipped more than 27 million units. Chasin says hearing loss is a function not only of how loud an individual plays music, but for how long. The latest iPod, for example, can store 15,000 songs and play for up to 20 hours. While today's iPods are somewhat quieter than an old Walkman, Chasin says, their ability to play for hours on end raises the risk.

Industrial regulations require employers to take action whenever workers are exposed to 85 decibels of noise for eight hours a day, says Choo. The boss has to either provide ear protection or make the place quieter. Because the decibel scale is exponential, every increase of three units doubles noise intensity. That means 85 decibels for eight hours is the same as 88 decibels for four hours, as 91 decibels for two hours, and so on. It therefore takes just 15 minutes of music at 100 decibels to equal the dose a factory worker gets in an eight-hour, 85-decibel shift. The Canadian Hearing Society says most portable cassette and CD players produce 85 decibels when the volume is set at half or slightly less. With iPods and the like, Chasin says, "if it's over a third of the volume, that's probably too loud."

The European Union recently implemented a 100-decibel cap on portable music players, but Canada and the U.S. have no such limits. With the ear buds Apple supplies, Chasin says the iPod can play up to 112 decibels - louder than a power saw. But with high-performance ear buds - such as the 6i Isolator Earphones by Etymotic Research Inc. - levels rose to 130 decibels, well above the 125 decibels where people generally begin to feel pain. Where someone can get into trouble is when Connelly, for example, tries to drown out the subway. But will she worry? "We've all gotten so many warnings about everything," Connelly sighs. "I know older people say teenagers think they're invincible - it's a cliché, but it's true."

Maclean's December 5, 2005