Mike Macione thinks some people are playing with audio dynamite, damaging their hearing with loud music.
The problem is earbuds — small electronic speakers that fit snugly inside ears and pump in volume from personal music players.
“If they’re used at a comfortable level, they’re OK,” said Macione, an audiologist and president of the Educational Audiology Association in Westminster, Col. “The problem is when you start to turn them up and get into the higher decibel levels. They can start to affect your hearing over time.”
Adults and teenagers take their music to gymnasiums, shopping malls and picnic areas. They plug in their buds when they’re on bicycles, on the run, in bed, in the library. Some use them at work. MP3 players, iPods and smartphones contain hours of pre-programmed entertainment.
People who listen to music at high volume risk noise-induced hearing loss and their high-frequency hearing. In the future, Macione said, they may not be able to hear sounds like the “S” in “Sam” and parts of words that end in plurals. Consonants may also be hard to understand.
“We’re seeing those types of hearing losses at a much younger age,” Macione said. “You would see those losses in older adults probably 25 years ago. Now we’re seeing those losses in younger people in their mid- to late 20s.”
Peggy O’Neill, an audiologist with the Center for Hearing in Clifton Park and Niskayuna, added that high-frequency hearing affects higher pitched sounds that help with word clarity. Words containing the letters “P,” “T,” “F” and “TH,” among others, could be misinterpreted when high-frequency hearing declines.
O’Neill said consistent noise exposure could also result in tinnitus, a condition of ringing or buzzing in the ears. “Sometimes the damage is not noticeable right away,” O’Neill said, adding what other hearing doctors say: Continued exposure to loud sounds can decrease hearing sensitivity.
O’Neill said total deafness, due to constant exposure to loud music, would be unusual.
Other symptoms of noise-induced hearing loss, says the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders, are distorted or muffled sounds. A person whose hearing has been damaged by noise may have trouble understanding speech.
Doctors have noticed an increase in hearing loss among young people. In 2010, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a study that reported approximately 20 percent of children surveyed in the 12-to-19 age range during 2005 and 2006 had reported some hearing loss — compared to about 15 percent of people in the same age group that had reported hearing loss in a study conducted from 1988 to 1994.
The association said hearing loss in adolescents could be attributed to infection and genetics, among other causes, but also said risks such as exposure to loud music could be an important factor in the age group.
Another study confirms that young people are hooked on their electronics. A 2010 report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that children and young adults ages 8 to 18 used entertainment media for an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes every day.
The association’s chief message — shared by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association — is to dial down the noise and keep the sounds of bass drums away from eardrums. American Speech’s “Listen to Your Buds” campaign is designed to prevent noise-induced hearing loss by helping parents teach children how to safely use personal audio technology.
People should also try to avoid other loud sounds. According to the Dangerous Decibels Project, a public health campaign designed to reduce noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus through education of school-aged children, some things don’t make much noise — according to the project’s decibel guide, a whisper checks in at between 15 and 25 decibels. Rainfall is heard between 45 and 55 decibels, and busy city traffic is around 85 decibels. The bigger offenders are portable music players and tractors, both around 100 decibels, leaf blowers and chain saws at around 115 decibels and fireworks and gunshots at about 145 decibels.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says 85 decibels is safe for up to 8 hours over a 24-hour period.
Macione is concerned about the big numbers and potential big noise from earbuds.
“If you’re standing next to someone and can hear earphones, then they’re too loud,” he said. “We’d like to see kids keep those earphones at comfortable levels. It’s no different in adults. We should all be turning them down.”
Macione often hears about the problem at his gym. “I’ll be on the treadmill and be able to hear the [earbud] music next to me,” he said. “Sometimes I can even understand the words.”
Same old song and dance
Warnings against loud noise are not new.
“This is the same thing as rock concerts and people who are baby boomers,” said Dr. Ernest Lee, chief of staff at Ellis Medicine in Schenectady and an ear, eye, nose and throat specialist with Schenectady Otolaryngology. “Sometimes, the damage is done but the effects or hearing loss occurs on a delayed basis. And it’s permanent once it happens.”
Lee said people must understand that constant listening to music at high volume is like working with loud machinery, such as ride-on lawn mowers, on a consistent basis. “Without hearing protection, you’re going to potentially damage your hearing permanently,” Lee said.
Lee doesn’t think people are going to throw away their earbuds, though.
“I don’t think that’s realistic,” Lee said. “If you listen to it, I think the recommendation is one-third of the maximum volume. That’s at a decibel level that is certainly not likely to cause any permanent damage.”
Listening to large, old-fashioned headphones or just turning up stereo speakers in a bedroom can also damage hearing.
“With earbuds, it’s more concentrated,” Lee said. “If you’re listening in a room and you can feel it in your bones, like at a concert, you’re doing damage.”
Lee’s advice is simple: People using earbuds should limit their music to the one-third maximum volume level. And they shouldn’t be listening for hours at a time.
Akira Nesfield wouldn’t listen to that advice.
“They’re on my ears all the time,” said Nesfield, 28, of Ballston Spa, who was talking with friends near Franklin Street in Schenectady on Tuesday with white earbuds in place. “I’m probably going deaf. I will not take them out; I just like my music at all times. I like to move at my own beat.”
Nesfield prefers her beat loud. She said she’s not worried about potential auditory issues in 15 or 20 years.
“I’m starting to hear ringing right now,” she said. “I can’t help it, I figure it will just happen.”
Irene Trudell listens to her music through miniature speakers when she exercises, but she watches her volume when she’s at the YMCA in downtown Schenectady.
“I think if you crank it up, that’s definitely going to be a concern,” said Trudell, 58, who lives in Scotia. “But if I don’t have music when I’m working out, it’s like drudgery.”
Trudell said she works out two or three days a week. She doesn’t think two or three hours of low-volume music over seven days is going to hurt her.
Bob Peters also listens at the YMCA. He listens when he’s running, sometimes when he’s at his Schenectady accounting office. “I think a lawn mower is louder,” said Peters, 46, who lives in Little Falls.
Justin Graham, 21, of Schenectady, listens to heavy metal. He was wearing earbuds Tuesday afternoon as he stood outside Proctors on State Street. Graham knows about the sound issues.
“I guess the trick is not to turn them up that loud,” he said.
Graham said he thinks quality earbuds help. He said he’s used inexpensive buds that hurt the inside of his ears; his current pair cost about $100 and fit comfortably.