John Crisp - Ear buds' hearing-loss risks fall on deaf ears

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So, I'm sitting at a computer station in my college's well-appointed writing center when a young student sits down at the next station. His music is seeping out around his ear buds distractingly. So I lean over and say, "You know, if I can hear your music, you're doing permanent, cumulative damage to your hearing."

In a perfect world, his punch line would have been, "Huh?" But he shrugged and said he was leaving anyway, which he soon did.

Except for writing this weekly column, ordinarily I'm not the kind of buttinsky who insinuates himself into other people's business. But there's a good chance that this young student hasn't heard about New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's newest $250,000 public health campaign, an effort to warn music lovers about the dangers of listening too long and too loud to their iPods and MP3 players through ear buds.

Bloomberg sometimes puts people off with his intrusive do-gooding -- limiting the legal size of a sugary drink to16 ounces, for instance -- but, the fact is, we live in a noisy culture, and it appears that few single things contribute more to gradual, irreversible hearing loss among the young than loud music piped directly into their ear canals for extended periods.

The facts are simple and largely undisputed. Hearing loss begins at around 85 decibels, the sound level inside a car in busy city traffic or in a school cafeteria. A snowmobile reaches 100 decibels and a chainsaw or loud rock concert reaches 110, a level at which the Centers for Disease Control recommends hearing protection if the exposure lasts longer than a minute and a half.

Some sources report that iPods are often played directly into the ear at decibel levels considerably higher than 85 -- the threshold for damage -- and as high as 120. And modern high-tech batteries have extended exposure time almost indefinitely. So we shouldn't be surprised that, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, as reported in The New York Times in 2011, the number of teenagers with some level of hearing loss has increased 33 percent since 1994.

All of this makes sense. For many millennia, our ancestors evolved in a very quiet natural world where the loudest sound was an occasional clap of thunder or the jungle at night. It took the invention of gunpowder and the industrial revolution to develop sounds loud enough and persistent enough to cause significant hearing loss. Deafness in old age was an occupational hazard for the railroad engineers who drove noisy steam locomotives.

Now, of course, modern electronics have made amplified sound so ubiquitous and unrelenting that hearing loss is inevitable; the human ear didn't evolve to withstand the levels of noise to which it's currently being subjected.

At the same time, the terms "good" and "loud" have undergone a strange conflation, especially in the realm of entertainment. If a rock concert doesn't leave your ears ringing, you haven't gotten your money's worth. And a common theme at most baseball parks and football stadiums is "Let's make some noise!" And they do, electronically, at levels that often exceed 100 decibels.

It's hard to write about this subject without being dismissed as a curmudgeon, as I'm sure the student at the top of this column dismissed me and my impertinent comment. Still, the worst years of my mom's long life were probably her last three, when her steadily diminishing ability to hear increased her isolation, even from her own family, until she was close to deaf when she died.

She never attended a rock concert in her life or used a set of ear buds. Beyond 90 years of age, though, it's not surprising that our hearing wears out, along with our other faculties. But younger hearers should take warning: Hearing is a significant quality-of-life issue. Unfortunately, humble warnings like this one are likely to fall on already deafening ears.

(John Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.)

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