The dawn of the iPod age has brought with it many things: catchy monochromatic advertisements, a love of touch screens and the ubiquity of white ear buds on subway platforms and city sidewalks.
Now, European lawmakers are looking to reverse one of the trends they say has picked up with alarming speed since iPods and other portable music players came on the scene: hearing loss.
The European Union announced that it is capping the volume of such devices after an EU scientific committee warned that prolonged exposure to loud noise from the music players could cause permanent hearing damage. The new rules will require manufacturers to set the maximum volume of personal music players at a safe default level, defined by the scientific committee as either 80 decibels adjusted for exposure limited to 40 hours a week or 89 decibels adjusted for exposure limited to five hours a week.
EU officials will let manufacturers decide which level to use. But the new rules will still allow consumers to override the default setting if they want, a move that was met with criticism throughout Europe.
"We're listening too loud and too long. It's not just about the volume, it's also about the duration," said Heather Ferguson, president of the Hearing Foundation of Canada. "People simply don't understand that your hearing is precious and your hearing can be lost."
There are measures people can take to protect themselves, such as buying noise-cancelling headphones to drown out sounds that might otherwise cause a person to turn up the volume. Some music players, including various iPod models, allow users to lower the maximum volume.
Calls to Apple, maker of the iPod, and Sony, which sells a variety of MP3 players, were not returned yesterday.
Members of the medical community have been warning for years that prolonged use of iPods and MP3 players blasting at full volume could lead to serious hearing loss, particularly among young people, who are some of the biggest users of personal music players.
A report published this year in the journal Pediatrics urged government and industry to protect teenagers and other young people by lowering the maximum volume of the devices.
Although research in this area is still relatively new, several studies and surveys have suggested a link between prolonged use of personal music players and hearing loss. A 2006 survey by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association found that more than half of high-school students reported at least one symptom associated with hearing loss, such as tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, asking for words spoken in normal conversation to be repeated, or turning up the volume on a TV or music player to hear it.
"In general audiologists, I think, are in agreement: We are starting to see more older ears on younger people," said Rex Banks, chief audiologist at the Canadian Hearing Society in Toronto.
While those trends are associated with the rising prevalence of personal music players, the devices shouldn't bear all of the blame, said Lisa Bonneau, director of audiology at the Hearing Loss Clinic in Calgary. MP3 players aren't dangerous if users keep them at a safe, low level, she said.
The problem is that many people listen to them on buses, subways, trains and in other loud environments, where they have to turn them up to drown out the noise.
"That's where we're seeing potential problems," she said. "People need to be aware."