By TIMOTHY MCNULTY
February 12, 2006
The same hearing loss questions sprouted after the Sony Walkman got big in the 1980s and before that, portable boom boxes. The concerns have started again with the iPod, due to its popularity (Apple sold an estimated 14 million during the holiday shopping season) and because the white headphones packaged with the device are "earbuds," which are inserted directly into the ear.
The answer to the hearing concerns from most doctors is the same one given before: When you're using your ears, also use your head.
"There is a concern that using headphones that go deep into the ear canal may be more likely to cause hearing loss, but we don't have any really good studies right now," said Dr. Douglas Chen, the director of the Hearing and Balance Center at Allegheny General Hospital on the North Side.
"If there is a ringing and buzzing in your ears, it means you're playing it too loud. ... If you hear noise after using your headphones or things are a little muffled, then you know you're probably playing it too loud."
A Louisiana man filed a class action suit in U.S. District Court in Northern California Jan. 31, saying Apple allows the iPod to play too loudly, leading to possible hearing loss in users.
iPods, the 18-page suit says, "are inherently defective in design and are not sufficiently adorned with adequate warnings regarding the likelihood of hearing loss."
It asks for Apple to load software onto the media players limiting their sound output, provide better headphones with the units and pay damages, among other remedies.
iPods can play at 115 decibels or more. Apple has limited units sold in France to 100 decibels, the suit says, and could do the same in U.S. models.
Apple places a warning in iPod user manuals that states "permanent hearing loss may occur if earphones or headphones are used at a high volume" and tells users to reduce volume or stop using the unit altogether if they have hearing problems.
The suit calls the warning "inadequate." Apple has not commented on the suit.
The suit followed worries Who guitarist Pete Townshend aired on his Web site in December. Noting he experienced hearing loss from using studio headphones, he wrote, "my intuition tells me there is terrible trouble ahead" from iPod-related hearing loss.
Music fans may find they don't want to play their music too loudly for reasons in addition to health concerns: At high volumes, the sound degrades and gets distorted.
Repeated use of iPods at very high volumes could certainly lead to permanent hearing loss - the Occupational Health and Safety Administration recommends exposure to no more than two minutes per day for 115 decibels. But as of yet, most doctors said they are not seeing many cases of hearing loss from the devices.
They see a lot more, at least in Pittsburgh, from other recreational activities, such as gun shooting, which can be as loud as 170 decibels. Even wearing protective earplugs only decreases gunshot noise to about 150 dBs.
"We see a lot more hearing lost due to gunfire than excessively loud stereos," said Dr. Chen of AGH.
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