Communication Disorders Clinic

Now hear this: Ear 'buds' are cool, but the price may be too steep

by Steve Svekis

Editor: You may be getting sick of reading articles about the dangers of cranking up the volume, but I think it's great that the word is getting out. Here's an article about this issue, and it has a personal touch. Thanks to Steve Svekis of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for permission to share his thoughts.

Ring. Ring. Ring. For most people, that's an incoming phone call. To me? That's life in my inner ear. A continuous, audible ring (or is it a whir?) pesters me every waking moment. The condition is called tinnitus. In the early 1980s, when I felt invincible, I didn't mind my temporary bouts with ringing in the ears, which followed about two hours of live rock and roll cacophony at an acoustically challenged venue. Van Halen at the old Hollywood Sportatorium (more than once) comes to mind.

Back then, the ringing was gone in a day or two. Somewhere along the way, though, the concerts and hours blasting the stereo in college caught up with me. Now, it's omnipresent, as if it were an ill-conceived tattoo from a lifetime ago.

And, to think, I pounded my eardrums back then without the help of the insert-into-the-ear "buds" that have become common as MP3 players have exploded onto the market.

According to hear-it.org, a Web site established to increase public awareness of hearing impairment (and which won a 2000 International Web Page Award for Best in Health), ear buds can send up to nine more decibels into the ear drum than a pair of conventional headphones at the same setting. That's approximately the difference between a vacuum cleaner and a motorcycle.

The hearing damage occurs when tiny hair cells in the ear's cochlea are damaged. These hair cells cannot be regenerated in human beings.

The iPod player is capable of producing 130 decibels (sound pressure level), though the maximum volume of a downloaded music file tends to max out at between 105 and 110.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that people should not listen to noise at a level of 110 dBA for more than a half-hour in a day (www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_id=9735).

Should children be held to a different standard, though?

Yes, says Dr. Ali Danesh, an associate professor of audiology at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

"This is a particularly alarming issue for children," Danesh said. "You must factor in that the smaller ear canal of a child is exposed to a greater sound pressure level than an adult listening to the same signal. When the space gets smaller, the sound gets louder. That's just a fact."

Danesh, whose FAU Speech and Hearing Clinic will be hosting Tinnitus Awareness Day from 9 a.m. to noon June 21, added that the portability of the fashionable MP3 players has youngsters not only getting louder signals, but also getting them for a bigger chunk of the day than in years past.

So, what can you do to protect your kids if you're a parent?

Apple has been proactive with the matter. The company offers a free iPod Software Update 1.1.1 (http://www.apple.com/ipod/download), which allows someone to program in the point on the volume bar that will be the new maximum volume.

In the latest issue of Audiology Today, a table was produced to give people a general guide to help with pre-setting the iPod maximum volume.

Some of the key parts of the table: At 50 percent, the iPod produces a free-field-equivalent measurement of 81 dBA.

At 81 dBA, people can listen for 19 hours. At 60 percent, or 87 dBA, the maximum recommended duration of listening time reduces to 4.5 hours. At 70 percent (92 dBA): 98 minutes. At 106 dBA (the 90-percent figure), people should not have any more exposure than four minutes in a day.

Also, noise-canceling headphones are a healthier option than the buds -- ranging from sub-$30 models all the way to the ultra-expensive fitted earphones that professional musicians use, which run for about $900. An online article by Apple expert Kirk McElhearn offers a variety of options to this end (www.ilounge.com/index.php/articles/comments/listen-safely-your-ears-and-your-ipod/).

The headphones keep ambient noise (traffic, others' conversation, etc.) from leaking in, ostensibly allowing one to hear intended music without lathering it with harmful increased volume to surmount the background noise.

Sure, many kids will listen to their favorite music as loud as is possible. Always. Just the way it is. As I said: been there, done that.

And the minimally visible earbuds are usually going to be a fashion choice over the more bulky, reasonably priced alternatives.

But I'm still hoping some will take the experts' advice, and not consider this effort so much background noise.