HEAR TODAY, GONE TOMORROW

Are all those iPods in the stockings bringing some coal along with them too? A Northwestern University audiologist says that misuse of the distinctive type of earphones that come with Apple Computer's hot-selling iPod line, as well as other MP3 players, can eventually lead to hearing loss. In an item on Science Daily's website, iPod's Popular Earbuds: Hip or Harmful?, Prof. Dean Garstecki says that the little earphones may be causing "the kind of hearing loss in younger people typically found in aging adults."

Garstecki sees the new earbud design, positioned directly in the ear, as being potentially more dangerous to your hearing than the "muff-type" earphones of earlier generations of music devices, such as the Walkman. Earbuds can boost the sound signal by as much as 6 to 9 decibels. "That's the difference in intensity between the sound made by a vacuum cleaner and the sound of a motorcycle engine," says Garstecki.

Not only do today's devices boost sound signal input to the ears, they encourage prolonged exposure at higher volumes with their capacity to play music continuously and for much longer sessions, which also contributes to potential hearing damage. Northwestern researchers have measured the typical output of earbuds, to student users, at 110 to 120 decibels. "That's a sound level that's equivalent to the measures that are made at rock concerts," according to Garstecki, chairman of Northwestern's communication sciences and disorders department. "And it's enough to cause hearing loss after only about an hour and 15 minutes."

Garstecki advises that iPod/MP3 users limit their listening to 60 minutes at a time at a volume setting of 6 on the 10-point volume control. He also recommends that listeners simply replace the iconic earbuds with older-style headphones. "If music listeners are willing to turn the volume down further still and use different headphones, they can increase the amount of time that they can safely listen." He admits, though, that with today's style-conscious young people, these solutions might be a "hard sell." (Compounding matters among youthful music lovers who are fans of rock and rap, these genres are usually played even louder than other types of music, such as jazz and classical).

Here, you can listen to Prof. Garstecki's original comments. But don't play them too loud. And if you're thinking of giving the gift of iPod to a young person for the holidays, you might want to consider an alternative earphone. They may thank you, eventually.

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