Recently, Open Medicine, an online medical journal, ran an opinion piece by Dr. Kapil Khatter recommending the Canadian government regulate the volume digital music players could output to 85 dB.. While Dr. Khatter’s recognition of the problem is commendable, his suggested solutions are probably unworkable and don’t really address the problem.
Dr. Brian Fligor’s research into the effects of personal digital music players has shown that it is not just volume that causes the damage; it is also the exposure time. Dr. Khatter suggests limiting the exposure to 85 dB which physiologically still leaves 25% of the population open to hearing damage. To be 100% safe, 80 – 82 dB should be the target.
Dr. Khatter further makes the point that “ear bud headphones may produce sound that is up to 10 dB louder than standard headphones. Firstly, there is no acoustic principle at work that would allow ear buds to be louder than headphones. The loudness would be a function of the dynamic design of the listening instrument itself whether ear buds or headphones. I believe what Dr. Khatter is referring to might be the need of the ear bud user to drown out background noise that might be otherwise blocked by a headphone cup that covers the ear.
All of these issues aside, the idea that legislation can solve this problem is fatuous. If Canada legislates a sound level for digital music players, buyers would order them from the U.S. or buy them there. Currently, the IPod has a feature that limits the output to 85 dB, which users can turn on or off. No, Dr. Khatter, what is needed is research, education, and a culture modification.
On the research front, what we need to understand is why people turn their players up so loud. Dr. Barry Blesser has some great thoughts on why that happens which we will share in a future blog. Dr. Brain Fligor is also researching the subject. We need to understand why so we can figure out how to change this behavior.
Once we understand why people will knowingly damage their hearing (they don’t knowing damage their sight or sense of taste or smell) we can educate them as to options. Dr. John Franks, a member of the Custom Protect Ear Scientific Advisory team, is currently doing some research into how to create conditions that would allow listeners to turn down the volume. Through research and education, in concert with government, we can get the knowledge of hearing damage from music players into users hands.
With all of this, perhaps we can create a culture similar to that in Europe, where listening at a safe level is much better understood. A recent presentation to the annual National Hearing Conservation Association annual conference showed use of hearing protection by club and concert goers in Europe to be 4x that of North Americans. We need to understand why.
You may be wondering what I’m taking such a hard stance. Dr. Khatter’s article is obviously well intentioned and trying to achieve the same goals as we are at CPE – the prevention of hearing loss. Our concern is that if we try to solve the problem with legislation and think our job is done we will not achieve the desired aim. In fact we might achieve exactly the opposite outcome. By making digital music players function in a manner that is incompatible with what the users in Canada think they want them to do, we merely reinforce how ill informed and ineffective government is without solving the problem. We need to get users to reduce their exposure (volume over time) willingly. That means understanding the motivations and educating to change outcomes.