EU Sets Out to Save the iPod Generation's Hearing
European countries have drafted a new rule that will require device manufacturers to take stronger action to protect consumers against hearing loss caused by listening to loud music on MP3 players. Even relatively low volume levels can be damaging to hearing after several hours of listening, studies have shown.
The European Union has updated volume standards for portable devices that play music, such as MP3 players and mobile phones. Going forward, new products will be required to maintain their default setting at 80 decibels.
The new rules upgrade EU directives CEN, CENELEC and ETSI, which require that warnings about the dangers of listening to music at high volumes be included in device instruction manuals.
They will be adopted after a two-year consultation period with industry, consumers and the medical community, according to media reports.
The action is largely a response to growing scientific and medical evidence linking hearing damage to listening to music at high volumes on portable devices. Some studies have concluded that even playing music at levels that seem reasonable -- say 85 decibels, slightly above the equivalent of normal conversation or road traffic -- leads to impaired hearing over the long term, especially if the listener is exposed to it for several consecutive hours.
One of the more recent studies was carried out by Vanderbilt University in conjunction with MTV.com. Published online in July in the Journal of Pediatrics , the survey found that nearly half the respondents experienced symptoms such as tinnitus or hearing loss after being exposed to loud music. It also found that 90 percent of males age 60 and over have hearing loss.
Teenagers are thought to be at higher risk, in large part because they tend to discount the possibility of long-term impact, especially if their hearing is not immediately impaired.
However, it can take years for damage to show -- and once the damage is apparent it is too late, noted Meglena Kuneva, head of the European Commission's consumer protection unit, speaking at a press conference Monday morning.
The new standards are "small technical changes," she said. Consumers who wish to override the default setting will be able to do so -- but only after they've been amply warned about the risks.
The adjustment on the part of device manufacturers is likely to be relatively small.
France has already introduced its own volume standard, requiring a limit of 100 decibels Magali Merindol, communications officer for Digital Europe, told the E-Commerce Times.
Adjusting to the new rules will not be that difficult, she said. "Manufacturers already comply with the standard in France."
The health issues have been on the Consumer Electronics Association's radar for several years, according to Brian Markwalter, vice president of technology and standards.
"CEA members who design and manufacture portable audio players for sale in the U.S. are, in many cases, the same companies who will be engaging with the EU to draft standards for default volume levels," he told the E-Commerce Times.
These companies care deeply about their customers and want them to have the information necessary to safely enjoy their products for years, he added, noting that CEA and its members originally addressed concerns over listening to portable audio with headsets two decades ago through a "listening for a lifetime" educational campaign.
Campaigns to raise user awareness of the issue are becoming more prominent -- especially in the development and marketing of headphones designed to keep hearing in top form.
The safety issue has also caught the attention of litigants and their attorneys, with at least one plaintiff filing a lawsuit against Apple for potential hearing damage.
After that suit was filed in 2006, Apple introduced software that allows users to set limits on the volume.
Apple, of course, is hardly the only device manufacturer in the global market. However, its iPod device -- which can be played at very high levels with little loss in sound quality -- dominates the industry. Furthermore, its earbud design exacerbates damage to hearing.