FACT: Exposure to loud music for prolonged periods will permanently damage your hearing.
We need to resist the temptation to turn the volume up to 11 – and the EU is actually being quite helpful.Stephen Wheatley, HearAngel®
I’m guessing this isn’t news to most people, but the long-term implications and the extent of the problem may be.
We live in an age where seemingly everyone has a smartphone, and we love the fact that we can have music wherever we go, courtesy of the headphones supplied – it’s a relief not to listen to other people’s conversations on the bus, right? But do you whack up the volume when there’s a lot of extraneous noise, i.e. when you’re on a train? Yep, of course you do.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 1.1 billion people are at risk of hearing loss, and there’s strong evidence that headphone users are suffering damage.
A survey of 10-30-year-olds by HearAngel®, undertaken by postgraduate students from University College, London, found that 68% of young people were aware of the risks posed by headphone use. The problem is, most also said they didn’t know what they should do about it.
The answer lies in what is known as your Daily Sound Allowance – the WHO recommends no more than 85dBA (average level) over any eight-hour period – it’s about how long, how loud and the ‘energy’ content of what you hear over that period (speech is low energy, with lots of quiet pauses between words, whereas electronic dance music is really high energy). A smartphone can output 100dB or more, so it’s only safe to listen for up to 20 minutes in any eight-hour period before hearing is damaged.
As you’d expect, there’s an app that can help too. HearAngel allows you to manage your sound dose, giving you the ability to choose when you want to be warned. It’s a bit like a fitness tracker for your ears, and the settings are user-selected, so you can choose whether you want a warning at 85dB, 95dB or perhaps when your accumulated dose for that eight-hour period is approaching the maximum recommended level. It will give you indications of how long you can continue to listen to that type of content at that level, so you can plan your exposure.
Heed the warnings (or not)
You may have noticed a warning about the volume when you first used your phone, which you probably dismissed without a second thought. This is tied in with the current EU regulation, EN6238-1:2014, which dates back to 2015.
Broadly speaking, this stated two things: when the output level of a device reaches 85dB with the headphones they give you, the user will be given a warning if there is a screen on which to do so (as there is on a smartphone); if there is no means of giving such a warning, ie, on an older-style ‘dumb’ device, the volume will be restricted to 85dB (and certain types of audio aren’t really audible at that level).
This regulation was a crude first attempt, given the limitations of the technology available at the time, to raise awareness and help reduce hearing loss in headphone users. Now that most of us have sophisticated smartphones, it is possible to provide users with information that is unique to them.
EU’ll love this
From December 2020, these rules are changing to allow handset and headphone manufacturers to do something interesting to monitor our actual exposure to sound – they will measure the volume and energy of what we listen to. EN6238-1:2018 will allow manufacturers to integrate individual hearing dosimetry into their devices and headphones. So, you will be able to monitor your listening and be able to work out for yourself whether or not you are listening safely. HearAngel, for example, meets these standards already.
Mobile phone companies can continue with the existing 85dB warning, but are recommended to move to a dose management-based system of information and warnings. This new safety standard applies to all new products in both the EU and US.
So, rather than being overly prescriptive, this is one EU directive that isn’t aimed at spoiling your fun, just helping you to help yourself. The rules say that advice has to be provided, what you do with it is entirely up to you.
Tips to Help Preserve Your Hearing
Choose your headphones carefully
Those headphones supplied with your phone may be small and convenient, but they’re almost certainly not noise-cancelling, and this is the way you want to go if you’re a regular headphone user. Because they block out the background noise, you’ll find you can listen at a lower volume, so you’ll be able to use your headphones 4-5 times longer, and you’ll be doing your long-term hearing a favour.
Be noise aware
Protect your ears in high noise environments such as the gym, or on public transport. Foam ear protectors or noise-cancelling headphones are helpful. While it’s tempting to listen to your own music while you’re on the treadmill because you don’t like the gym manager’s choice, you could effectively be running yourself deaf.
Rest your ears
Avoid overexposure to loud noise where possible – if you’re going to a rock concert, consider wearing ear plugs for the support act (you’ll still be able to hear them), then listen to the main act without. If you’ve spent some time in a noisy environment, seek out somewhere quiet – sit in a quieter part of a restaurant, or relax with a good book.
Beware of wind noise
This can give you tinnitus, a condition that leaves sufferers with a permanent ringing, humming or buzzing in the ears. This type of noise is most likely to affect people such as motorcyclists, who should use specialist motorcyclist ear plugs to reduce wind noise.
Don’t put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear
Cotton buds? Just don’t. Wax is your ear’s natural cleaning process, and pushing anything into your ear will compress the wax and put pressure on your eardrums, possibly reducing your hearing. If wax builds up to the point where it affects your hearing, see your doctor about having it syringed out.
Your sleeping environment should be as quiet as possible – extraneous noises such as traffic can be distracting and prevent a peaceful and continuous night’s sleep. If you live on a noisy road, consider sleeping with ear plugs.