There’s a pretty good chance that he’s got the volume up too loud — loud enough to potentially damage the sensory cells deep in his ear and eventually lead to permanent hearing loss.
That’s according to Christopher Chang, an ear, nose and throat doctor at Fauquier ENT Consultants in Warrenton, who sees patients every day with hearing-related issues. “What he’s hearing is way too loud, because it’s concentrated directly into the ear itself,” he says of my son, adding that the anatomy of the ear magnifies sound as it travels through the ear canal.
Listening to music through earbuds or headphones is just one way that many of us are routinely exposed to excessive noise. Mowing the lawn, going to a nightclub, riding the Metro, using a power drill, working in a factory, playing in a band and riding a motorcycle are activities that can lead to hearing problems.
Aging is the primary cause of hearing loss; noise is second, says Brian Fligor, who directs the diagnostic audiology program at Boston Children’s Hospital, and it’s usually the culprit when the condition affects younger people. Approximately 15 percent of American adults between the ages of 20 and 69 have high-frequency hearing loss, probably the result of noise exposure, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
Several studies of music listening behavior in adolescents suggest that between 15 and 25 percent of teens listen to music at volumes that put them at risk for hearing loss. Fligor, who has conducted one such study, says “the majority of kids don’t turn their headphones too loud. [But] for ear buds, my rule of thumb is 80 percent of maximum volume for 90 minutes a day.”
And when someone turns the music up louder? Well, in short spurts, that’s okay. Loudness is only one part of the equation. How long you’re exposed to loud noises also affects your risk. “The biggest concern is that teens and 20-somethings are using music players so regularly,” Chang says.
For a long time, excessive noise exposure occurred largely on the job. As a result, most knowledge about noise-induced hearing loss comes from research on occupational noise done in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This work led to regulations set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which says that workers can be exposed to 90 decibels — somewhere between the noise you’d experience from a heavy truck and a jackhammer each being operated about 15 yards away — for eight hours. For louder noises, the allowed exposure time is reduced accordingly. The OSHA Web site www.osha.gov/SLTC/noisehearingconservation/index.html includes a chart of typical noise levels.