EU wants iPods and MP3 players made quieter

headphones

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.

One thought on “EU wants iPods and MP3 players made quieter

  1. Although Dr. Brian Fligor is an expert in his area and not one in public policy, one must be careful while evaluating his ideas on liberty in terms of the extent to which a government can regulate, especially when he says,”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.”
    Again, although it might be so that he might have been keeping track of the effects of governmental policy on hearing aids and their correlative effects, it seems that he is pointing to a more fundamental concept of how much a government can intervene in regulating manufacturers, and consequently consumer choice. However, the task of educating people and giving warnings might not have a better positive effect on the health of consumers, because, by leaving all choices to the consumer regarding their health(i.e. higher degree of caprice), you are making the point of basic governmental stipulations on any goods affecting health quite redundant. However, there are more than plenty of counterexamples to show that these basic threshold stipulations(for example, hygiene stipulations) have been effective while at the same time leaving space for consumer choice.

    Moreover, with respect to the broader stipulations like warnings and advice to the extent to which one ought to use the listening device, he compares them to instances of his own advice. The analogy stops when one realizes that at there is a difference between the interpersonal level of a doctor-patient relationship and the impersonal role of the government in ensuring a well functioning society. It is quite impossible for the government to rely on personal admonishments by guardians to ensure that children are not affected in the long run by high decibel levels. The function of the government is therefore to ensure a systematic realization of health goals by enabling a guideline to be applied consistently, which is not ensured in the case of mere advice and warnings.

    Also, given liberal assumptions, there seems to be a confusion between the moral areas in which governments can intervene and areas of broader well being. It is a different thing to say that the government cannot intervene in, say a person’s choice to be homosexual (a moral area) and a government intervening in terms of funding public hospitals (well-being area which provides a foudation to make broader moral choices). A very strong argument can be give in favor of the latter but not much in case of the former.

    On my part as a philosopher, it is therefore suggested by me that the Dr. Fligor examine his basic assumptions regarding any comments on public policy, which in turn might enable him to play a more effective role in its framing and implementation.

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