March 15, 2006 in Nation/World

Portable devices may be behind hearing loss rise

Frank James Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON – A disturbing number of high school students and adults are reporting early signs of hearing loss, and hearing experts think they know the culprits: iPods and similar portable devices that allow people to funnel loud sounds into their ears for hours on end.

More research is needed to conclusively establish the link between the white cords dangling from millions of ears and hearing difficulties. But scientists suspect the increasing prevalence of the devices is contributing to the rising number of people reporting some form of hearing loss.

Fears and debates about the loud music favored by youths have been around since the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll.

But the leaps in technology that are allowing commuters on a bus or kids walking to high school to feel like they’re at a deafening concert are also channeling ever higher volumes of music more directly onto people’s eardrums.

Hearing experts who called a news conference here Tuesday to voice their fears didn’t use the words “crisis” or “epidemic,” but it was clear they were worried about the results of a survey conducted by the polling firm Zogby International.

Twenty-eight percent of high school students questioned said they had to turn up the volume on a TV or radio to hear it better, for example, and 29 percent of the teenagers said they often found themselves saying, “What?” and “Huh?” during normal conversation.

“The results should give pause to anyone who’s concerned about the nation’s hearing health,” said Alex Johnson, president of the American Speech-Language Hearing Association.

“While the cause of the symptoms was not identified, the polling showed that people are listening louder and longer – habits made easier by strides in listening technology, but ones that may also contribute to hearing damage,” said Johnson, chairman of the audiology and speech-language pathology department at Wayne State University.

The polling results and warnings mirror concerns voiced by other hearing experts in recent years. These experts estimate that more than 28 million Americans have some hearing loss, a figure that some think will reach 80 million in 25 years as the baby boom generation ages.

Johnson and others suggested that consumers take precautions, including parents monitoring the volume of the music as well as how long their children listen to it.

The experts also recommended that consumers buy the often pricey headphones that block out external sounds like subway or airplane noise, the idea being that consumers then wouldn’t need to crank up the volume to overcome the background noise. And they suggested that manufacturers limit the volume on their products.

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