Tag Archive: headphones

It’s surprisingly easy for headphones to damage hearing

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article in Popular Science discusses noise-induced hearing loss caused by headphone use.

If headphone volume is high enough to block out noise from traffic or others speaking, it’s probably loud enough to cause hearing loss. If you use headphones or earbuds, that’s an important thing to know.

But also know that the sound levels cited in the article by audiologist Tricia Ashby at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association aren’t safe. The 85 A-weighted decibel standard she mentions is an occupational noise exposure standard that even with limited exposure–8 hours a day, 250 days a year at work, for 40 years in the factory–allows 8% of workers to suffer “excess” hearing loss.

Noise is different from other occupational exposures, e.g., toxic solvents or ionizing radiation, because we are exposed to noise all the time, all day long, all year long, for an average whole lifetime now approaching 80 years.

As I wrote in the American Journal of Public Health, the only evidence-based noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss is a time-weighted average of 70 decibels for 24 hours. I discussed the reasons why even 70 decibels is probably too loud in this blog post for the AJPH. Well, just two hours exposure to 85 decibel noise makes it mathematically impossible to average below 70 decibels for the day.

Ms. Ashby is correct that a recent study reported a declining prevalence of hearing loss in American adults, but the Centers for Disease Control reported that 25% of American adults have hearing loss, many without any occupational noise exposure.

I have been predicting an epidemic of noise-induced hearing loss in young people using headphones, and now the preliminary evidence is beginning to appear in scientific journals.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Loud music listened to on headphones is causing hearing loss in children

Photo credit: Gordon licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

My main noise issue is restaurant noise, but I have learned about other noise issues, too. When I figured out that the oft-cited 85 decibel standard is an occupational noise exposure standard, and not a safe noise exposure standard for the public, I sent emails and letters to the audiologists quoted in media reports. When I realized that 85 decibels was used as a safe volume limit for headphones marketed for toddlers as young as 3 years, I called this to the attention of pediatricians, the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Centers for Disease Control. My efforts, sadly, have thus far been unsuccessful.

My worries were based on theoretical concerns. There was no way that loud noise without a time exposure limit could be safe for children. Now this report documents that the hearing loss I was worried about isn’t a theoretical concern any more. Namely, the news article writes about a study conducted by Erasmus Medical Centre in Holland, in which scientists “studied more than 5,000 children aged nine to 11-years-old over three years, found one in seven of the youngsters had suffered some hearing loss.”

The study is preliminary. The hearing tests were done as part of a study of normal child development in Rotterdam, but not specifically to determine whether personal music player use caused hearing loss. More than 5,000 children were enrolled in the study, but complete hearing tests were available for only about 3,000, and personal music player use was assessed by parental report. Despite these limitations, the study found that 14% of the children, now just under 11 years old, had some type of hearing impairment.

That said, one must ask what is causing this early onset hearing loss. The researchers believe the cause may be children’s use of headphones to listen to portable music players.

Maybe this will spur regulatory authorities into action. At the very least, parents and grandparents can take these headphones away from their little darlings, and give them instead the gift of continued good hearing.

The problem with headphones isn’t just hearing loss. As a parent and soon to be grandparent, I know that talking with children and listening to what they say–almost from the time they are born–is one of the most important ways to teach them words and language, to establish a relationship with them, and to educate them about the world. Giving the child a personal music player or video player and headphones can occupy the child for hours–it’s certainly easier than carrying books and reading them to the child, or giving the child a paper and crayons, or playing with dolls or trucks or Legos–and it allows the parent to watch or listen to his or her own cellphone or personal electronic device, but it probably isn’t the best thing for the child, either.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association board from 2015-2018.

 

Hearing Loss Is Growing


From the book The Human Body and Health Revised by Alvin Davison, 1908 / Public Domain

And Experts Say Earphones Are Part Of The Problem.

Mack interviews audiologist Michele Abrams who spoke about limiting exposure to damaging sound:

When we think about decibel levels, when we think of loudness levels, it’s really incremental.  It’s a logarithmic scale. It’s not a linear scale. So we know that 85 db is that critical level. Eighty-five db, eight hours a day, that’s your maximum. If it’s 90 db — five db greater — you have to cut your time in half.

While generally informative, Abrams’ comment unfortunately identifies 85 db, eight hours a day as the “critical level.”  But this noise exposure level is too high.  It was developed solely as an occupational noise exposure standard and should never be applied to the general public, certainly not to children.  As Dr. Daniel Fink, a noted noise activist, wrote in, “What Is A Safe Noise Level For The Public?”:

In the absence of a federal standard, an occupational standard meant to prevent hearing loss appears to have become the de facto safe level for all public noise exposures. This is demonstrated by the use of 85 decibels as a safe sound level by hearing health professionals and their organizations, in media reports, and in publications, most often without time limits; by its use as a volume limit for children’s headphones marketed to prevent hearing loss, again without exposure times; and by general acceptance of higher indoor and outdoor noise levels in the United States.

*   *   *
Eighty-five decibels is not a safe noise exposure level for the public. In 1972, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health developed an 85 A-weighted decibel recommended exposure level to reduce the risk of hearing loss from occupational noise exposure. … Even with strict time limits, this standard does not protect all workers from hearing loss.

So what is a safe noise level for the public?  Dr. Fink states:

In 1974 the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) adjusted the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommendation for additional exposure time: 24 instead of 8 hours daily and 365 instead of 240 days annually.  The EPA calculated the safe noise level for the public to prevent hearing loss to be a 70-decibel time-weighted average for a 24-hour period… The EPA did not adjust for lifetime noise exposure, now almost 80 years versus 40 work-years, so the real average safe noise level to prevent hearing loss is probably lower.

One thing is clear, allowing children to use earbuds or headphones without limiting volume and time exposure is a recipe for hearing loss.  Since the federal government has abdicated its authority to regulate noise, and manufacturers are unlikely to design products that limit the user’s ability to deliver as many decibels as he or she wants, parents must step in to protect their children’s hearing.  Here’s something that will help: Don’t allow your children to wear earbuds and headphones.  Tell them that if they want to listen to music they must play it through a speaker.  While this may be unpopular, know that you will be giving your children an important gift–the ability to listen to and enjoy music throughout their lifetimes.

 

 

Now showing at the Consumer Electronics Show 2017:

Orosound’s Tilde Noise Management Earphones

Orosound’s ‘noise-managing’ earphones hush unwanted sounds. While we appreciate tech startups that focus how we can manage noisy environments, we can’t help but to point out the obvious: Instead of developing gadgets that allow people to limit the noise invading their personal soundscape, why not limit the noise at its source? Just a thought.

Until that happens–in our lifetimes, one hopes–we will report on the products and services you can use to keep unwanted sound at bay and control the soundscape of your slice of the world.

Declining prevalence of hearing loss in U.S.? What do the data really show?

by Daniel Fink, MD

On December 16, 2016, an article appeared in the New York Times, Americans’ Hearing Loss Decreases Even With Ubiquitous Headphones, which focused on a study by Howard J. Hoffman, MA, et al. (Hoffman) that appeared in the respected medical journal JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery. The study found that there was a declining prevalence of hearing loss in U.S. adults. The results were considered surprising, as the study showed that the rate of hearing loss in adults age 20-69 had decreased from 15.9% to 14.1%. The researchers, epidemiologists, and statisticians at the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, who conducted the study, are among the best in the world, and the data came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s well-respected National Health and Nutrition Surgery.

The results were considered surprising because two other recent federal reports, one in October 2015 from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and the other in June 2016 from the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine (IOM) (since renamed the Health and Medicine Division), emphasized that hearing loss, especially in older Americans, was a major national problem. Both of these reports cited an analysis by Frank Lin, MD PhD, Johns Hopkins University, that showed that 48 million Americans suffered significant hearing loss, with the prevalence increasing sharply with age.

I am personally involved in the question of what the facts are, since in an editorial in the January 2017 issue of the American Journal of Public Health I write about the inappropriate use of the 85 decibel occupational noise exposure standard, which should not be applied to the general public, citing Lin’s research and other studies that show increased hearing loss in young people age 12-19.

So, what do the data really show?

I am not an epidemiology expert like Mr. Hoffman and his distinguished co-authors. Their methods appear sound, their data sources as good as one can find in the epidemiology of hearing loss. The first caveat is that this study, as with all studies of the epidemiology of hearing loss in the pubic, is based on survey methodology. A group of 3831 participants are the study population, from which conclusions about the entire U.S. population were drawn. It would be too costly to test hearing in millions of people.

The second caveat is that there are newer techniques, currently only used in research and not yet in clinical use, demonstrating that before hearing loss can be detected by standard hearing tests (called pure tone audiometry), a phenomenon dubbed “hidden hearing loss” may have taken place. Hidden hearing loss has been found in young people and older adults. So while Hoffman’s study is encouraging, it may not be able to completely report what is really happening with Americans’ hearing.

The third point–not a caveat–is that Hoffman et al. studied adults age 20-69 and did not include young people under age 20. Those under age 20 may be the group most at risk of hearing loss due to ubiquitous use of personal music players at loud volumes. Two studies, using lower thresholds for measuring hearing loss than Hoffman et al. or Lin et al. used, found high levels of subclinical hearing loss (hearing loss greater than 15 decibels but less than 25 decibels) in young Americans. One from 1998 found that 15% of young people had measurable hearing loss, and the other from 2010 showed an increase in the prevalence of hearing loss to almost 20%. This is worrisome because studies of auditory acuity in young people traditionally found excellent hearing.

The fourth point also isn’t a caveat, but a quote from the last line of Hoffman’s abstract: “Despite the benefit of delayed onset of HI (hearing impairment), hearing health care needs will increase as the US population grows and ages.”

It’s great news that the percentage of Americans age 20-69 with hearing loss (the epidemiology term for this is “prevalence”) has decreased from 15.9% to 14.1%. But that still means that there are millions of Americans with hearing loss–and that’s too many! Further, subclinical hearing loss appears to be increasing in young Americans, and, as the Hoffman study notes, hearing loss in older Americans is a significant health problem.

Finally, a point of contention: noise exposure is a major cause of hearing loss, and not aging as is implied in the study. Why would men have nearly twice as much hearing impairment (18.6%) as women (9.6%)? Is it an effect of testosterone levels on the auditory system, in which case one might actually expect hearing to improve as men get older, or is it the result of more noise exposure from work and recreational activities in men than women? Noise and hearing loss are still major problems in the U.S. and in the world, and the non-auditory effects of noise on health, which are coming into greater focus, continue unabated. 

So yes, the prevalence of hearing loss in American adults may be declining, but when Lin’s analysis showed that approximately 25% of adults in their 60s, 33% of adults in their 70s, and half of those over age 80 have significant hearing loss–data cited in the PCAST and IOM Committee reports–it is obvious that there is still a major problem and still much to be done to prevent noise-induced hearing loss here and abroad.

And I and others have said before, but it bears repeating: noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable. If people avoid noise exposure and protect their ears from noise, they should be able to preserve natural hearing well into old age, rather than needing to rely on assistive hearing devices. The only evidence-based safe noise level remains a 70-decibel time-weighted average for a 24-hour period.

Dr. 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 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.

The Best Music for Productivity?

Silence.  Olga Khazan, writing for The Atlantic, wonders whether wearing headphones and listening to music to avoid the noise in an open plan office is “just replacing one distracting noise with another.”  And her research, unsurprisingly, leads her to the inescapable conclusion that music interferes with concentration.  Khazan notes that the more engaging the music is, the worst it is for concentration, adding that “[m]usic with lyrics is dreadful for verbal tasks.”

So the next time your boss tells you to don a pair of headphones to drown out the noise of your fellow open plan toilers, send him or her the link to Ms. Khazan’s article along with a request for an office.

Thanks to @QuietEdinburgh for the link.

Headphones marketed as safe for children aren’t!

kid-wearing-headphones

By Daniel Fink, M.D.

A new analysis on “the best kids’ headphones” by The Wirecutter, a product recommendations website owned by The New York Times, as reported in the New York Times science section, found that headphones marketed as “safe” for children’s hearing were louder than advertised. The Times’ article did not adequately reflect the extensive and thoughtful analysis by The Wirecutter’s reviewers, Lauren Dragan and Brent Butterworth. Their review deserves to be read (and reread) in its entirety, as it is without doubt the most complete and scientifically sound review about any noise topic that I have seen in the popular media.

The Wirecutter review mentions that two problems with headphones marketed as “safe for children”: (1) that the headphones are louder than they claim to be, and (2) that manufacturers are using an industrial-strength occupational noise exposure level as a safe noise level for children. The review doesn’t emphasize the latter point enough.

I discuss the origin of the 85 decibel noise exposure standard in detail in an editorial in the January 2017 issue of The American Journal of Public Health. The 85 decibel volume level at issue was developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to protect workers’ hearing. It comes with strict time limits–an 8-hour day, 240 days a year, for a 40-year work career–and even then does not protect all workers from hearing loss. NIOSH discussed the difference between an occupational noise standard and a safe noise level for the public earlier this year in a blog post titled, “Understanding Noise Exposure Limits: Occupational vs. General Environmental Noise.” The NIOSH post makes it very clear that 85 decibels is not a safe noise level for the public, and it certainly is not safe for toddlers or children who may be listening to music or watching videos for more than 7 hours a day, every day. In addition, children, and especially teens, are exposed to other loud noise sources–action movies, sports event, etc.–so their total noise dose likely approaches dangerous levels.

Children’s ears may be more sensitive to noise than adult ears. First, there is no doubt that an 85 decibel headphone speaker is closer to a child’s eardrum because the external auditory canal is shorter in children than adults. (Noise follows the inverse square law, so the closer a noise source is to the ear the louder it is.) Second, it’s unlikely that children will limit their listening to just 240 days a year, on average they will live for almost 80 years, and in the course of their lifetimes they will undoubtedly be exposed to more noise, in gyms, parties, rock concerts, sports events, and the like. A child’s delicate ears have to last her a whole lifetime.

Studies of auditory acuity in so-called primitive populations show that significant hearing loss in old age is not inevitable. These studies are not available online, so I can’t provide links, but the classic studies were done in the 1960’s by Rosen and colleagues in the Mabaan population in the Sudan, and by Dickson and colleagues in the Kalahari Bushmen. Rosen found that the Mabaan could carry on a conversation at normal speech volumes while facing away from each other at a distance of 100 yards. Dickson wrote that the Bushmen could hear an airplane 70 miles away. As noted in The Wirecutter review, acute hearing was a matter of life or death for our primitive ancestors, either to find food or to avoid being a predator’s meal. The Rosen and Dickson studies suggest that hearing loss so commonly seen in the U.S. is likely not part of normal part of normal physiological aging, but rather is noise-induced hearing loss–i.e., the result of a lifetime’s exposure to excessive noise. If one starts listening to 85 decibel sound at age 3, hearing loss and hearing aids may be inevitable–and at an earlier age than in the past.

What can be done to protect children’s hearing from dangerous consumer products marketed to them? The federal agencies charged with protecting the public should do their jobs. The Federal Trade Commission should take enforcement action on the grounds of false advertising against vendors claiming that headphones with the 85 decibel volume limit are safe for children. They may be safer than headphones without a volume limit, but they are by no means safe, especially without recommendations for time limits on use. The Consumer Product Safety Commission should require warning labels on headphones, earbuds, and personal music players, stating “LOUD MUSIC CAUSES DEAFNESS!” The pediatric community should do more to educate parents about the dangers of noise for children. And parents must step up and demand truly safe products for their children or deny their children access to products that will destroy their hearing.

Dr. 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 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.

Yet another article on how to “design around” the “open office noise problem”

Startup Stock Photos

TechRepublic writes about the “new study from Oxford Economics [that] claims that open office floor plans can hurt employee productivity” in a piece titled, “Here’s how to design the best office for your employees.”  And once again we are compelled to respond as follows: When will this assault on employee productivity and morale end?  Why can’t *they* bring back private work spaces?

It seems clear that nothing will be done until the bean counters can quantify the enormous costs of open plan offices.  No doubt part of the problem is that it’s hard to put a dollar figure on employee distraction, frustration, and decreased morale.  But one thing is clear, the absolute raft of articles on how much employees hate open plan offices indicates that they are a problem that needs to be solved or redesigned or otherwise dealt with.  One day some newly minted management genius will rediscover pre-open plan office design, repackage it slightly, and give it a new name, and after the applause dies down, *they* will follow.

Just in time for “National Protect Your Hearing Month”:

New research shows young adults at risk for hearing loss.  ABC7NY reports on New York City Health Department data showing that “40% of adults ages 18 to 44 visited loud venues at least a few times per month, [and] 41% of teens who listen to a personal music players with headphones 10 or more hours a week said they listen at maximum volume.”  Both activities, the Department cautions, puts people at risk for hearing loss.  Says Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett, “[l]istening to your headphones at high volume or attending loud concerts, restaurants and bars regularly can take a toll on a person’s health and hearing,” and she cautions that technology, in particular, makes it too easy to be exposed to potentially damaging sound.  The Department advises parents to talk to their teenage children about avoiding hearing loss down the road, and suggests sensible measures for limiting exposure to punishing sound.

Thanks to Charles Shamoon for the link.

Was there no alternative?

Former banker makes money keeping partyers quiet, spreads the appeal of “quiet clubbing” across the country.

No doubt you are wondering what goes on at a quiet clubbing event.  Good question.  According to Crain’s, at a quiet clubbing event partygoers wear “wireless headphones that connect to the music of one of several live DJs,  Each headset has a color LED light that indicates which music the wearer is listening to. The atmosphere is clublike, with strobe lights and booze, but the noise level is lower.”

While we applaud the desire to lower noise levels, we can’t get the image out of our heads of a roomful of people dancing and singing along to different playlists in an otherwise quiet room.  And what about those who think that quiet clubbing is antisocial?  The former banker/current club diva disagrees, stating that quiet clubbing is “the opposite of antisocial because unlike a traditional club, people can take off their headphones and actually have a normal conversation without screaming at the person standing next to them.”  Finally, a solution to the problem of trying to have a conversation in a club!

That said, taken to its logical conclusion, and thanks to virtual reality, soon anyone can throw a quiet clubbing party in his or her own apartment.  Just grab a pair of VR googles, put on your 3D headphones, and dance with yourself and your virtual friends.

Thanks to Charles Shamoon for the link.