Exposure to loud music puts more than 1 billion at risk for hearing loss

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“Hey dude — can you turn your music down?”

If anyone says this to you while you’re wearing your earbuds, take note: You are probably endangering your hearing.

More than one billion teens and young adults are at risk of losing their hearing, according to WHO (that’s the World Health Organization, not the rock band).

It’s not just old folks who suffer hearing loss. Just by listening to music at what you probably think is a normal level, or hanging out in loud bars, nightclubs and music and sporting events, you can permanently damage your hearing.

By analyzing listening habits of 12- to 35-year-olds in wealthier countries around the world, WHO found nearly 50 percent of those studied listen to unsafe sound levels on personal audio devices and about 40 percent are exposed to damaging levels of music and noise at entertainment venues.

It doesn’t take much time to damage your hearing at a sports bar or nightclub. According to the WHO, “exposure to noise levels of 100 dB, which is typical in such venues, is safe for no more than 15 minutes.”

You can’t get it back

Once you lose your hearing, it won’t come back.

Rapper Plan B and Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin know that all too well. They both suffer from tinnitus, hearing loss that causes a permanent and irritating ringing in the ears, because they didn’t protect their hearing. Now they’ve joined forces with a British hearing loss association to warn others.

“I suffer from tinnitus,” says Plan B on actionhearingloss.org. “When I first developed it, I thought it was trains rushing by my house as I live near a railway line. It was really loud and an extremely high-pitched ringing in my ears. I now have to wear special earplugs when I go to bed to help stop my ears from ringing.”

“Looking after your ears is unfortunately something you don’t think about until there’s a problem,” says Martin. “I’ve had tinnitus for about 10 years, and since I started protecting my ears, it hasn’t got any worse (touch wood). But I wish I’d thought about it earlier.”

Turn down those earbuds

When it comes to personal listening devices, the level of damage you can cause to your ears is directly correlated to how long you listen and how loud the sound. “Unsafe levels of sounds can be, for example, exposure to in excess of 85dB for eight hours or 100dB for 15 minutes,” says WHO.

Eighty-five decibels isn’t all that loud. According to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, it’s about the level of city traffic that you’d heard from inside your car.

Some 360 million of us have already suffered moderate to severe hearing loss, according to the UN Health Agency Worldwide. While that number does include factors out of our control, such as aging, genetics, birth defects, infections and disease, about half of all cases were avoidable.

That’s why WHO has launched the Make Listening Safe initiative. Part of the campaign is to encourage manufacturers to create audio safety features on devices and then educate consumers on how to use them. WHO is also calling on governments to create and enforce recreational noise legislation.

“Parents, teachers and physicians can educate young people about safe listening, while managers of entertainment venues can respect the safe noise levels set by their respective venues, use sound limiters and offer earplugs and ‘chill out’ rooms to patrons,” says WHO.

In the end, it’s up to each of us to protect our own hearing. The good news is that it’s easy to do. When it comes to your personal audio devices, such as your smartphone:

— Turn the volume down. Don’t go above 60 percent.

— Wear noise-canceling earbuds, or better yet, headphones.

— Take “listening breaks” or only listen for just an hour a day

— Get an app for that. Download a smartphone app to help monitor safe listening levels.

And the next time you go to a bar, nightclub, sports event or concert, use ear protection. Martin does.

“Now we always use moulded filter plugs, or in-ear monitors, to try and protect our ears,” says Martin. And his kids never go to a concert without big, noise-canceling headphones.

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