Canada should limit volume on music players to avoid hearing loss, experts say
Audiologist Sandra Baker cringes when she can hear loud music emanating from another person’s headphones while on the bus or walking down the street.
“If you are listening with headphones and someone is talking to you in a normal voice at an arm’s length away, you should be able to hear them,” Baker told the Georgia Straight over the phone. “If you can’t, if they have to raise their voice to hear them, it’s too loud.”
Baker works with people who have hearing damage at the Vancouver-based Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. She says people don’t immediately suffer the effects of listening to loud music with headphones, but prolonged exposure could destroy their hearing.
“What will happen is people will start to lose those high-frequency sounds and, over time as we age, we start to have more problems hearing those things more clearly,” Baker explained. “Ten percent of Canadians suffer from hearing loss, and as we age that number increases. We can’t pinpoint all of that to noise, but some of that we can pinpoint to noise exposure over our lifespan.”
Baker understands that sometimes people can’t resist blaring their favourite song. But the registered audiologist says cranking up the volume on personal music players, like iPods, needs to be done in moderation.
“Hearing loss is not at this point a curable thing,” Baker said. “Once hearing loss occurs, there is no way of reversing it.”
Dr. Kapil Khatter says that’s all the more reason the federal government should start regulating how loud default volume settings can go on personal music players.
“By having this default-level setting, it also tells people what a safe level is,” Khatter, a family physician and an associate editor of the Canadian peer-reviewed journal Open Medicine, told the Straight by phone from his office in Ottawa. “When you are sitting there turning the volume from one to 10, you probably don’t know what a safe volume is, but a default level, it says, ‘This is what the standard says is okay for me.’ ”
In 2009, the European Union changed the standards manufacturers of personal music players must follow to bring their product to market. Personal music players must have a default volume limit of 80 decibels, and their makers must provide consumers with warning labels on products that could exceed a safe listening volume.
Khatter advocates that the rules adopted by the EU be introduced in Canada.
“I think what they are trying to do is find a balance between regulating these things and letting people take the personal risks that they want to, but in a more informed way,” Khatter said.
Health Canada says it is evaluating the risks by studying users’ habits. The department did not make anyone available for an interview, but staff sent the Straight a statement saying the federal government has “no plans” for regulations and is focused on providing information to consumers.
Khatter is unsatisfied with Health Canada’s position.
“Education is the fallback, cop-out position Health Canada tends to take,” Khatter said. “It just doesn’t work. You can’t keep putting things on the shoulders of consumers and say, ‘We will educate you about what is safe and what isn’t safe, and if you hear our message, then you get to decide to protect yourselves.’ ”
The EU decided to add warnings and volume controls to personal music players after a study by its scientific committee on emerging and newly identified health risks recommended the moves.
“Just because you buy a device doesn’t mean it’s safe to put at full volume for an extended period of your day—and for many days,” Thomas Jung, a physicist who’s a member of the committee, told the Straight by phone from Villigen, Switzerland. “The science says if you listen, as a commuter in the day, for one or two hours a day both ways and you listen to music at a full or high volume setting, and you do this for 15 years, you are getting more exposure to sound than if you are working in an environment where you should be wearing protective devices.”
Without any regulatory system in the works for Canada, Baker hopes education will be enough to limit the amount of people she will have to fit for a hearing aid over the next 20 years.
“We don’t think about hearing the way we think about other illnesses, and the effect that it has on people is long-term,” Baker said. “It is okay to enjoy music, but there are reasonable levels and there are levels that will cause you damage over time, where you will get to a point where the music you enjoy now—you won’t be able to hear it.”