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Kids' Use of Earbuds Worries Hearing Experts

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Kids' Use of Earbuds Worries Hearing Experts

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Kids' Use of Earbuds Worries Hearing Experts

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Okay. Sit next to a teenager on the bus or the subway, and chances are, you will hear something like this.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Music leaking from the earbuds of an MP3 player. You may have wondered, if I can hear the music, what's it doing to that kid's ears?

NPR's Richard Knox went to school to find the answer.

RICHARD KNOX: Not many places are noisier than a middle school cafeteria at lunchtime.

(Soundbite of a middle school cafeteria)

KNOX: This is the Smith Leadership Academy in Boston.

Mr. DAVID FASSLER (Teacher, Smith Leadership Academy): If you can hear me, clap one.

(Soundbite of clapping once)

Mr. FASSLER: If you can hear me, clap twice.

(Soundbite of clapping twice)

KNOX: There are 200 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in this room, and a doctor, Sharon Kujawa of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. She is here to convince them that too much noise can be bad for them.

Dr. SHARON KUJAWA (Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary): Every single day in our clinics, we see people with permanent hearing loss from exposure to loud sounds.

KNOX: Sharon Kujawa starts with a physiology lesson. You can't hear anything, she says, unless little hair cells vibrate. They're inside a snail-shaped chamber in the inner ear. Loud noise can damage this sensitive cells, even kill them. How loud is too loud? Kujawa brings her own sound effects.

Dr. KUJAWA: Let's see. How about a chainsaw? That would be loud.

(Soundbite of chainsaw)

KNOX: That enters the danger zone in Sharon Kujawa's sound meter. Less than a half hour of that sound can do damage. What about the lunchroom noise? Kujawa calls on Akeema Charles, an eighth grader who helped her measure the decibel levels.

Ms. AKEEMA CHARLES (Student, Smith Leadership Academy): We got 89.2, 84 and then 89.8.

Dr. KUJAWA: That's pretty loud, you guys.

KNOX: Then Kujawa gets to her main message: personal stereo players.

Dr. KUJAWA: The reason they're potentially dangerous is because you take that little earbud and you put it down in your canal, and you're this far from the source of the sound now.

KNOX: To drive the point home, Kujawa brings on Ben Jackson, a good-looking, twenty-something guy. Immediately, he's got these kids' ears.

(Soundbite of song, "Turn it to the left")

Mr. BEN JACKSON (Rap Artist): (Rapping) But the number one risk around, is when the volume goes up when it should go down, so be aware of the sounds that you're listenin' to, and when it gets too loud, you know what to do.

Unidentified Man: (Rapping) Turn it to the left, turn, turn it to the left…

KNOX: Jackson is part of Sharon Kujawa's team for personal reasons. His father, Isaiah, is a classical musician — a conductor — who lost much of his hearing from unknown causes.

Mr. JACKSON: Thank you.

KNOX: That's why Ben Jackson works hard to get these kids to understand what's at stake.

Mr. JACKSON: Oh. If you shave all the hair off your head, right? What happens?

CROWD: Grows back.

Mr. JACKSON: It grows back. Exactly. Now, with the reason that your ears are different — and this is crucial that you remember this — your ears don't heal. They never get better. They just get worse — slowly or quickly — throughout your life.

KNOX: Two hundred middle-schoolers are totally silent as Jackson says, you want to be able to keep listening to music, don't you? Scientists are paying attention to what's happening to kids' hearing, too.

Six years ago, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported noise-induced hearing loss in nearly 13 percent of Americans, between six and 19. Sharon Kujawa says that translates to more than 5 million young people.

Dr. KUJAWA: To have a statistic like that certainly raised many, many red flags.

KNOX: Some experts don't accept the way CDC researchers measured hearing loss. But even critics of that study worry about noise levels that kids are living with these days. In her research, Sharon Kujawa exposed young animals to loud noise. She found they had accelerated hearing loss later in life even without more noise exposure.

Scientists have measured sounds from MP3 players. At 70 percent of volume, they pump out 85 decibels, about the same as the school cafeteria. That's the spillover from Akeema Charles' earbuds. She's the eighth-grader who helped Kujawa measure that lunchroom noise. Akeema listens to her iPod a couple of hours everyday. After she turns it off, she sometimes hears ringing in her ears.

Ms. CHARLES: Big time, sometimes big-time. Sometimes my ears were like, - because I don't know, I just like music. I can't help it.

KNOX: Sharon Kujawa tells the kids that ringing in the ears is a danger sign of imminent ear damage. Ben Jackson tells them that means it's time to cut back on listening time and turn the volume down.

(Soundbite of song, "Turn it to the left")

Mr. JACKSON: (Rapping) It ain't no fun man, it ain't no fun, when you're 13 years old and your ears are 81. Imagine what it's like to be here in this track, except the words are all muffled and the beat is whacked…

Richard Knox, NPR News, Boston.

(Soundbite of song, "Turn it to the left")

Mr. JACKSON: (Rapping) Because your hearing can't return to its original state, that's right, once the damage is done, it's forever, your ears do get worse but it can never get better.

INSKEEP: You can hear Ben Jackson's complete rap, assuming you can still hear, and read about the warning signs of noise-induced hearing loss at npr.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Turn it to the left")

Unidentified Man: To the, to the left, to, to the, to the left.

Mr. JACKSON: (Rapping) What can I do to protect myself and make sure I maintain it 'coz all will help, you got one set of ears to last your whole life, so listen up close and follow my advice, protect your ears when you hear loud sounds, when you listen to the music, turn the volume down, use good headphones…

INSKEEP: Playing at whatever volume you choose, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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