Turn Down That iPod In this week's Opinion Page, Melissa Castino Reid discusses her article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune which raises concerns about a popular Christmas gift, the iPod.
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Turn Down That iPod

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Turn Down That iPod

Turn Down That iPod

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. At least 13 workers have been trapped in a coal mine explosion in rural northwest--in northern West Virginia. The mine had been idle over the holiday weekend, and the explosion occurred as the mine was reopening today. There's no word on the condition of the trapped miners. And another low-cost small airline is shutting down. Independence Air, based in suburban Washington, says it stops flying Thursday. The carrier filed for bankruptcy protection in November; it's been in operation for less than two years. You can hear details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, from wiretapping and intercepting e-mails to cell phone tracking, advances in--excuse me--advances in technology have changed the way that government conducts surveillance. I'm Neal Conan. The technology of espionage and how it plays into the debate over warrantless wiretaps--that's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Now it's time for the TALK OF THE NATION opinion page. On Mondays we highlight an Op-Ed piece that appeared in the newspapers over the weekend and speak with the author. Today we speak with Melissa Castino Reid. Ms. Reid wrote in yesterday's Minneapolis Star Tribune regarding her concerns about a popular Christmas gift, the iPod. What's at stake, she says, is nothing less than your own hearing. If you have questions for Melissa Castino Reid, our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org. And Melissa Castino Reid joins us now from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio.

A happy new year to you. Thanks very much for coming in.

Ms. MELISSA CASTINO REID (English Instructor, Minneapolis Community and Technical College): Thank you, Neal. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: First of all, what's the point of your Op-Ed? I mean, a lot of people got iPods for Christmas. It's hardly new. I remember back in the late 1950s getting transistor radios with those little earpieces.

Ms. REID: Well, the point of my Op-Ed piece is to raise awareness to the idea that the iPod could easily damage the hearing that you do have. And so when Lee Bowman of the Associated Press wrote in his article or her article, `Earbud headphones can cause hearing loss,' it was an ample opportunity for me to respond to that in my own way and in my own voice.

CONAN: And you bring a special background to this.

Ms. REID: I do. I've worn a hearing aid since I was seven years old. And I know something about it. I'm not a--as I said in my Op-Ed piece, I'm not an audiologist, but I am an authority.

CONAN: It was an interesting moment in your story when you put those hearing aids on for the first time at the age of seven and suddenly started hearing sounds.

Ms. REID: Well, I heard some sounds, but I heard some very specific sounds that were indeed music to my ears. And the one that you're referring to is I was in the kitchen and my mother was getting breakfast ready for me, and I heard this amazing sound. And I said to my mother, `What is that sound?' And she said, `I don't know, honey. I'm putting peanut butter on your toast.' And as I said on the Op-Ed piece, it was music to my ears. It was pinnacle, the sound of life.

CONAN: And it is those sounds, the soundtrack of all of our lives, you suggest, that may be at risk if we crank up those iPods a little too high.

Ms. REID: Well, indeed. I mean, why not listen to the birds outside? Why not listen--and I know you're a fan of baseball, Neal; why not listen to the crack of the bat at--what--come spring. And as a teacher of English, my school is located right next to the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, and every once in a while I'll be teaching and I hear the ringing of the bells. So that's a lovely soundtrack.

CONAN: We should think of all of those sounds and the new ones that may shape our lives to come when we consider where to set that dial, the volume dial.

Ms. REID: Well, certainly. There are lots of different sounds that we can consider. How about listening to one another as well, listening to someone say, `I love you'?

CONAN: Our number, if you'd like to join us, is (800) 989-8255. Let's talk with Max, Max calling from San Francisco.

MAX (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Max.

MAX: Hi. I'm calling in because I actually have experienced a little bit of hearing loss as a result of using an iPod. And I'm also an audio engineer, so I can sort of talk a little bit about the actual, you know, technical ramifications of what the iPod's capable of. Just--this is really more of a comment than a question, but the iPod puts out 3,000 milliwatts of power; that's 3 watts. And I've been able to actually use larger headphones on an iPod as speakers, it's so loud.

Ms. REID: Ooh.

MAX: And it's actually what I have--what I had happen to me as a result of this was, you know, I wasn't young and I wasn't paying any attention, and I wore large headphones with an iPod, riding a bicycle or on the train in New York, for a long time. And maybe a year and a half ago, I woke up in the morning and I had ringing in my ears.

Ms. REID: Ooh.

MAX: And essentially what I was told was that when you use earbud--the headphones that plug in on the inside of your ears, it doesn't allow air pressure to equalize, and therefore you're ending up doing even more damage...

Ms. REID: Exactly.

MAX: ...than with enclosed headphones. There are headphones out there that are not as dangerous, though. And I think--I mean, I think the iPod's a wonderful device. I just think it's important for--I mean, I would say that Apple, if they were responsible, would put some sort of volume limiter on it so that you could set how loud maximum volume was to your taste. That's really all it would take. And you know, because it's marketed at kids and kids don't really think about hearing loss, I think as it is it actually is a pretty dangerous device.

CONAN: As an audio engineer, I mean, are you sure the damage came from the iPod or from cranking up those Grateful Dead tapes or whatever it is you've been recording all those years.

MAX: I'm pretty positive it did, because at the time that I noticed it, I had been not playing in bands for a long time, and I'd always been fairly careful about protecting my hearing in loud environments and listening to, you know, mixes and monitoring at a reasonable level. But what I ended up using the iPod for was, like I said, you know, riding my bicycle or listening to it on the subway, where there's a lot of background noise. So as an audio engineer I was frustrated with the background noise and just kept turning it up, and I wasn't really thinking about it.

CONAN: Maybe the old signal-to-noise ratio.

MAX: Yeah, yeah. Interestingly enough, Apple doesn't tell you what their signal-to-noise ratio is on the iPod, but...

CONAN: It...

MAX: ...yeah, exactly. Basically I kept turning it up to drown out the outside noise, and as a result, I've got this very high-pitched whine in my ears that's the same as, like, leaving a TV on with the screen black. And it's all the time for the rest of my life, and I'm just going to have to live with that. I mean, I'm able to ignore it now, but it comes back at times and it's extremely frustrating.

CONAN: And it could, I assume, get worse.

MAX: It could. I don't think it will because I caught it early and the audiologist I talked to about it basically said that, you know, the damage won't get worse after--if I stop abusing my ears. But even so, I mean, like I say, it's kind of dumbfounding to me that Apple would put that much power in the device. It's really a whopping amount of power. And there are even aftermarket devices that people sell that make it more powerful.

CONAN: Wow. All right.

Ms. REID: It's scary.

CONAN: It is scary. And, Max, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate the information.

MAX: Thank you.

CONAN: And good luck.

MAX: Thank you.

CONAN: Before we let you go, I did want to ask you, Melissa Castino Reid, there was another aspect of your Op-Ed, and that had to deal with the--health insurance and hearing loss.

Ms. REID: Well, yeah. I have this crazy notion that maybe what we ought to do is have them covered by insurance, and currently they are not covered by insurance. So my dream or my idea is to create just a simple form that the audiologist would fill out, and you can take that to your health insurance company and have them covered. But currently they are not. And as I said in the Op-Ed piece, somehow hearing aids are considered to be cosmetic, and that's really hard for me to believe or hear, for that matter.

CONAN: Here's an i--I'm just reading from Melissa Castino Reid's piece. `According to the Veterinary Pet Insurance Web site, if your dog Fido needs hearing aids, Fido's covered under the VPI medical plan. It covers the cost of hearing aids, testing and fitting. I couldn't believe my eyes,' she wrote. `I ought to get my vision checked, too.'

Ms. REID: Indeed. Indeed. That's a little hard to believe, isn't it?

CONAN: It is a little difficult to believe. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Ms. REID: It's a pleasure.

CONAN: Melissa Castino Reid wrote about hearing loss and iPods in yesterday's Minneapolis Star Tribune. She joined us from Minnesota Public Radio. If you'd like to read the entire piece, there's a link to her piece at our Web site at npr.org.

We turn now to Brenda Lonsbury-Martin, the director of research and science for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and a research professor at Loma Linda University School of Medicine in Loma Linda, California. She's with us now from her home in Palm Springs, California.

Nice of you to join us today, and happy new year to you.

Professor BRENDA LONSBURY-MARTIN (Loma Linda University School of Medicine; American Speech-Language-Hearing Association): Well, thank you, Neal. Happy new year to you, too.

CONAN: Let me ask you, is there conclusive research that would link iPods to hearing loss?

Prof. LONSBURY-MARTIN: Well, there isn't a whole lot of research right at this time on iPods, per se, on that particular brand. But for about 10 years or more, there's been research here and there in the field on personal stereo systems or personal CD players. And you know, the news is that they do harm your hearing after a certain amount of usage.

CONAN: Well, what's--again, what's the difference between these particular devices and the transistor radio with that earpiece that I got when I was, you know--in 1959.

Prof. LONSBURY-MARTIN: Well, I think it comes down to the fact the earpieces themselves, what they call earbuds now, are just so much smaller and compact-fitting inside the ear canal, so you're just getting a much smaller space which to play the sound in, and that makes it louder. And folks that have done the measurements, scientists who have done measurements, says it's, you know, 9 to 10 dB louder than the old systems where you had a much looser fit or more of an earmuff fit.

CONAN: DBs is decibels or--it's a unit of loudness.

Prof. LONSBURY-MARTIN: That's right. That's right. It's a logarithmic scale, so it goes up very quickly. The higher numbers mean, you know, much more serious problems than the lower numbers in terms of loudness.

CONAN: And I understand that you also think that people may be using iPods a little bit differently than other devices, even very similar devices such as a Walkman.

Prof. LONSBURY-MARTIN: Ooh, yes, because, you know, with the newer technology, what's made the big difference is not so much the loudness, per se, or the intensity of the sound, but the duration that is capable now. In other words, you know, with the new batteries and the hard-disk capability of storing so much music, you can listen up to eight hours without ever taking, you know, the device out of your ear canal if you chose to. And that's the problem, because we measure sound danger in terms of not only the loudness, but the durations. And so the louder it is, the shorter the duration that you really should, for health reasons, be listening. And this feature of these new MP3s are a problem, because they allow you longer and longer times to listen to loud music.

CONAN: We're talking about iPods and hearing loss. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Sean. Sean's calling us from Boston.

SEAN (Caller): Yes, hi. I should also disclose that I'm a former audio engineer. But I find this conversation a little bit disconcerting in that it seems to forget about common sense. And my sense that listening to anything at a significant volume for a period of time, regardless of headphones, regardless of the source, is likely to be bad for your hearing. And the fact that we now have to have another warning to protect ourselves from a new product is a disappointing sign of a continuing culture of people forgetting about responsibility and common sense.

CONAN: So it was true of devices before the iPod, you're suggesting, and we should have addressed it then?

SEAN: Well, I think this is--it's been known for a long time. I don't think there's anyone who doesn't realize that if you listen to loud music with headphones, if you go to a club and don't wear earplugs, it's going to be bad for your ears. People are capable of making these determinations, and I don't think we need this notion of `Apple should be sending out warnings' or `These regulations'--I'd like to think that people are smart enough that they can figure these things out, take responsibility, and we don't have to have this sort of culture of parenting going on at all levels.

Prof. LONSBURY-MARTIN: May I respond to that, Neal?

CONAN: Yes, please, go ahead.

Prof. LONSBURY-MARTIN: What the problem is here is the market that's being targeted is very young people, mostly teen-agers and young adults, and this is a particular time of life when this particular segment of the population feels they're not at risk for anything. They will never get...

SEAN: Oh, but, Neal, people have...

CONAN: Hold on, Sean. Let her speak. Go ahead.

Prof. LONSBURY-MARTIN: So, I mean, that's the problem is that you really--you're talking to a group of users that just don't want to listen to that kind of common sense.

CONAN: Now go ahead, Sean. I'm sorry.

SEAN: I was going to say, first of all, I mean, this--the younger crowds, they do have parents. Yes, of course, no one at that age wants to listen. But again, I think--where are we going with this? Is the ultimate goal to say, again, we've either got to ban these products or take some sort of action to protect people from things that they can't take their own actions to deal with?

Prof. LONSBURY-MARTIN: Well, I think it's the onus of those of us that do realize the danger to educate the younger user in this case. And there are programs in this country--for instance, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry out in Portland has a Dangerous Decibels project in which they are attempting very actively to educate children, parents and teachers, anybody that comes in contact with this generation, to be aware of what--these premature hearing loss and the kinds of problems that this sort of deafness can cause later on in life.

CONAN: And...

Prof. LONSBURY-MARTIN: So it's a public education aim rather than, you know, limits of the sort. Now there are limits. You know, iPods are made in Europe, where they do have a limit on where they have to be restricted to under 100 decibels. But very soon after they began selling these in France and countries in Western Europe that do have these restrictions, there was--a lot of information became available on Web sites about how to get around these kinds of precautionary efforts. So, you know, there's always going to be people out there who are going to try to beat the system somehow. So education really is about the only way, you know, short of...

CONAN: So you wouldn't necessarily advocate regulation a la the European model?

Prof. LONSBURY-MARTIN: Well, no, I don't think--I just don't think that's effective in the end because you can get around it.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah. All right. Sean, thanks very much for the phone call.

SEAN: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Other than these warnings--and I guess Sean's other point was--certainly Pete Townshend of The Who had severe hearing loss after all those years onstage in front of those banks of amplifiers; I guess he's the walking advertisement for what can happen in those--obviously not the iPod situation, but--what would you suggest for people--you know, again, this group of people is not likely to think that anything is going to...


CONAN: ...as you point out, make them any less than immortal.

Prof. LONSBURY-MARTIN: Right. And you know, it is a very difficult problem. I think educating them and through the schools, through their parents, through public service ads, through organizations like our own that can promote education of the dangers of these kinds of devices, I think that's the only way we can reach them. And I mean, you can certainly make the argument that, you know, their generation will all be the same, you know, come 20 years from now when they all need hearing aids. But if you're the only one left that doesn't need a hearing aid, maybe it is talking to a blank wall in the first place. It's hard to say. But education has to be the hugest factor here.

CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us today.

Prof. LONSBURY-MARTIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Brenda Lonsbury-Martin is director of research and science for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, and she joined us today from her home in Palm Springs, California.

Again, if you'd like to take a look at Melissa Castino Reid's Op-Ed piece that was the origin of today's TALK OF THE NATION opinion page, go to our Web site at npr.org.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington

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