Tuning In? Turn It Down

If you tune in, turn down the volume. That will safeguard hearing and minimize distraction for users of cell phones and MP3 players, health experts say.

In public settings, people turn up the volume to compensate for "the cacophony of everyday sound," says Brian Fligor, a member of the American Academy of Audiology.

The street-level noise in major cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., averages about 80 decibels, "about the level of a hair dryer" held close, Fligor adds. Turning up the volume of a music player masks some of that sound, but also increases the total noise level.

Prolonged exposure to loud noise presents risk beyond auditory concerns. Fligor cites World Health Organization research showing ill effects such as stress, sleeplessness and elevated blood pressure. It has a negative effect on cardiovascular health overall.

In-ear headphones can boost an MP3 player's sound by as much as nine decibels over what an over-the-ear headset can produce, Fligor says. This doesn't necessarily mean in-ear headphone users are at a higher risk, however.

His research shows that subjects using either kind of listening device typically set the volume to achieve similar levels of perceived sound output. So even if in-ear headphones can be louder, they might not be turned up as much. "It's not clear that one is used unsafely more often than another," Fligor concludes.

Either way, his advice is to "dial it down and moderate how long you're listening."

The European Union recommends a 100-decibel limit for MP3 players sold in its member countries, primarily to minimize risks to consumers' hearing.

In the United States, there's no recommended industry cap because there's "been no standard agreement of what constitutes a safe level," says Laura Hubbard, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association, whose members include makers of MP3 players. But hearing experts put the maximum level for safe listening at 85 decibels. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders warns that prolonged exposure to higher levels can cause gradual hearing loss. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, when testing a handful of MP3 players, found their full volumes ranged from 115 to 125 decibels.

The CEA addresses health and safety concerns on its Web page. It cites information from the Deafness Research Foundation and includes examples of decibel levels.

Among the organization's tips:

  • Set your volume control at a low setting; don't exceed 85 decibels.
  • Use caution or temporarily discontinue use in potentially hazardous situations.

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