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Deaf to Danger: How Your Child’s MP3 Player Could Cause Permanent Hearing Damage!

December 5, 2010

As parents know, listening to loud music on a MP3 player is a way of life for many young people. With today’s MP3 players, users enjoy long battery life, vast storage space, and volume of up to 120 decibels. But as Yale’s Professor Peter Rabinowitz notes, “the use of personal music players has grown faster than our ability to assess their potential health consequences.”

In a recent study published in the British Journal of Medicine, Professor Rabinowitz observes that the misuse of MP3 players can have life-long consequences. This is because loud music, like any loud noise, can damage delicate hair nerve cells in the inner ear over time. Prolonged exposure to loud noise can cause permanent hearing damage, and the longer a person is exposed to loud noise, the worse the damage is.

And the design of popular MP3 players may exacerbate the potential for hearing loss. In a recent lawsuit, Birdsong v. Apple, Inc., 590 F.3d 955 (9th Cir. 2009), the plaintiffs sued Apple alleging that the “iPod is defective because it poses an unreasonable risk of noise-induced hearing loss to its users.” The plaintiffs brought multiple claims alleging that Apple’s MP3 player is inherently dangerous because it comes with stock ear buds (designed to be placed deep into the ear canal rather than over the ears) which increase the danger of hearing damage, and lacks any volume meter that will inform users they are listening at dangerous levels. The district court and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected this argument, holding that (1) the plaintiffs’ allegations “suggest only that users have the option of using an iPod in a risky manner, not that the product lacks any minimum level of quality” and (2) the alleged injuries were merely hypothetical because no plaintiff had yet to suffer “the requisite injury in fact.” Despite this court ruling, emerging medical research indicates that MP3 players can cause hearing loss in children if misused.

In light of this research, and this holiday season, parents can take simple precautions to protect their child’s hearing. Monitoring the volume and length of exposure, as well as replacing stock “ear buds” with traditional headphones, are simple things which could go a long way toward preventing hearing loss.

By Eric Wood and Gregory S. Cusimano