by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition
The headline for this article in Time magazine is “Will earbuds ruin my hearing?” The short answer is that it’s not the earbuds or headphones that damage hearing, but the noise emanating from them. The longer answer follows.
The article widely cites Dr. Robert Dobie at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio who says that earbud use isn’t a problem.
It also cites Harvard researcher Dr. M. Charles Liberman, who, with Dr. Sharon Kujawa, discovered the phenomenon now known as hidden hearing loss. This is damage to nerve junctions (synapses) in the ear, called hidden because it is not detected by standard hearing tests.
Dr. Liberman says that earbud use might be a problem.
Dr. Dobie’s assertion that earbud use isn’t a problem sounds just like the doctors in the 1950s and 1960s who insisted that smoking cigarettes wasn’t harmful to health. We now know differently.
My conclusion is that noise causes hearing loss. The human ear was not designed to withstand loud noise exposure because such a tolerance offered no evolutionary advantage. As I wrote in the January 2017 American Journal of Public Health, the only evidence-based safe noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss is 70 decibels time-weighted average for a day. I further explained, in a requested blog post for AJPH, that the real safe noise exposure level is probably lower than that.
We know, from decades of research on occupational noise exposure that led to the occupational safety criteria for noise exposure, from the work of Liberman and colleagues, and from hundreds or thousands of studies showing that noise damages hearing in animals and humans with the cellular and sub-cellular mechanisms of how this occurs now precisely understood that noise causes hearing loss.
If you believe Dr. Dobie, continue to listen to your personal music player using earbuds or headphones.
If you don’t want hearing aids when you are older (and I don’t think hearing loss is part of normal aging, as I said at the 12th Congress of the International Commission on the Biological Effects of Noise in Zürich in June 2017) my advice is not to use earbuds.
Your ears are like your eyes or your knees. God only gave you two of them. Protect them and keep them safe and working well your entire life.
Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.