Columbus Hearing Specialists Worry About Damage Caused By Earbuds

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An unidentified woman wearing headsets on the Ohio State campus.(Photo: Marilyn Smith, WOSU News)
An unidentified woman wearing headsets on the Ohio State campus.(Photo: Marilyn Smith, WOSU News)

Whether they are running, riding a bike or walking Central Ohioans love their IPods and smartphones.  Wires attached to earbuds or head phones hang off the ears of people everywhere as they go about their daily business.  Audiologists have long worried about the impact earphones have on hearing, but earbuds have them even more concerned.

Patrick Sedler is an Ohio State senior. A biology major, Sedler tries to be mindful of hearing damage when he listens to his IPod.

“I also wanna hear the song and it’s hard when like cars and stuff are driving by. But I don’t wanna blast the sound up where I know it’s gonna damage my hearing in the future. I try to be cognizant about it but it is distracting sometimes especially when you’re walking on the street.”

That’s the balance headphone music lovers have to consider: The music has to be loud enough to hear over traffic, but soft enough to avoid hearing loss.

To fine the right balance we did a little experiment. We played a Bob Dylan song at a safe level in a quiet studio. Then we played the same song adding ambient street noise.

Depending on how much noise a listener’s earphone cancels out, the chances are…the IPod volume will be jacked up.

But experts say going from 60 decibels…a normal speaking voice…to 70 decibels…and then to 80 decibels is a factor of ten greater and then another factor of ten greater. So going from 60 to 80 is 100 times louder.

Clintonville Audiologist Paul Niswander listeners need to pay attention to the possible harm listening to loud music through ear buds can cause.

“Some of these ear buds reach 120 db which has the potential for producing right quick hearing loss.”

Ear, nose and throat doctor Evan Tobin says while different listening devices emit different levels of sound a good rule of thumb is to limit IPod volume to about sixty percent of its maximum output.

“The ear buds that an IPod comes with the buds that just kind of rest are actually probably the least safe. And you would think maybe the opposite because they don’t fit snugly. The reason for that is because those ear buds don’t block out surrounding and ambient noise, you have to play a louder volume to block out the noise around you.”

OSU student Zack Colles wears over-the-ear head phones as he walks to class. He says the head phones are not completely sound-cancelling but he likes them better than ear buds. While he is not too concerned about hearing damage, he tries to keep the volume on his IPod at a reasonable level.

“I know that you’re supposed to listen at about sixty percent volume and um, I try not to go above that too frequently.”

Audiologist Paul Niswander says over-the-ear head phones are probably a good choice for Colles.

“Those larger phones would probably be likely to result in less noise exposure because the environmental sounds are reduced.”

Sound cancelling head phones that actually send opposing frequencies into the ear may be even safer. Dr. Tobin.

“Those opposing frequency are drowning out the ambient noise and so it’s basically bringing that background noise down to zero.”

Still both hearing specialists agree the louder and longer people listen to sound is what ultimately causes hearing damage no matter what transmission device is used.

“We’re not seeing people coming in complaining of hearing loss but it’s there when we look for it. We know that it’s a cumulative problem and if we have a young person who listens to music for ten or fifteen years, that’s going to cause damage.”

Dr. Tobin says as a general rule if it sounds like it’s too loud it probably is and if the noise is uncomfortable, it probably should be avoided all together.

Oh, and one more thing, try not to share your earbuds with anyone else and clean them with an alcohol wipe once in awhile.