EU wants iPods and MP3 players made quieter


Many parents wonder whether their child will suffer from permanent hearing damage due to continually listening to loud iPods and other MP3 players.

So parents all over Europe must have been both worried and relieved last month when the European Union (EU) substantiated their fears and issued new guidelines limiting volume settings and recommended exposure times to protect its citizens’ hearing.

The EU guidelines state:

  • All makers of portable music players must lower their default volume setting from 100 decibels (dB, the sound of a jetliner) to 80 dB (the sound of road traffic)
  • The default level can be overridden by consumers who choose to do so
  • Manufacturers must add a health warning to all new devices within the next two years
  • At 80 dB, exposure should be limited to 40 hours a week
  • According to a BBC news report, these rules were framed in response to new research, which claimed that one in 10 users of portable music devices who listened at high volume for more than one hour per day over five years risked permanent hearing damage.

Will this be enough to keep kids’ hearing safe? And should there be similar guidelines in America? We spoke to Brian Fligor, ScD, CCC-A, director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Diagnostic Audiology Program and Clinical Researcher in Audiology, for his thoughts.

I think the researchers have looked at this issue from a very conservative perspective. They’ve said that in order to protect listeners’ hearing, we need to recommend a maximum exposure of 80 dB for a weekly time period of 40 hours. (the extent of damage to hearing depends on the amount of time you are exposed to the sound.)

While it’s likely that most people don’t spend 40 hours a week listening to music, if you increase the volume to 83 dB, then only 20 hours of exposure per week is allowed. And if you further increase it to 86 dB, then your exposure should be limited to 10 hours per week. Now you’re talking about more realistic time periods, especially for people who listen to music while commuting to work.

Our research has shown that people tend to listen to music at roughly 13 dB above the ambient noise. So for people who use public transportation, where noise levels hover between 75-80 dB, they are choosing levels much higher—between 88 and 93 dB—and this falls into the range of listening too loud for too long a period of time.

However, as a consumer and self-professed loud music listener, I completely balk at the idea of a regulation that forces a manufacturer to limit how loud devices can go and essentially tells me what I can and cannot do. Instead, I would strongly advocate educating consumers, focusing on better listening habits and helping people understand the consequences of their actions as opposed to a governmental crackdown. Also, manufacturers should create tools to cultivate better listening habits and use warning displays when a user cranks up the volume to a level that could damage their hearing.

The parents of my patients often ask me for advice on how to protect their kids’ hearing. As a father and an audiologist, I tell them that I would let my child use headphones unsupervised when I would let her use a cell phone unsupervised. A child who runs up a $500 phone bill because they’re constantly texting suggests to me that that child doesn’t have the maturity to use understand consequences of their actions. So by extrapolation, such a child should not be trusted with a pair of headphones either.