11. Conclusions on health risks of personal music players
- 11.1 Are users of personal music players exceeding current sound exposure limits?
- 11.2 What are the risks of prolonged exposure to loud sounds from personal music players?
- 11.3 Under what condition can listening to personal music players be considered safe?
- 11.4 What further research is needed?
11.1 Are users of personal music players exceeding current sound exposure limits?
Listening to music, at 80 dB(A) or less is considered safe
The risk of hearing damage depends on sound level and exposure time.
The EU established exposure levels above which action should be taken to protect workers, notably a limit of 80 dB(A) for an 8 hour working day assuming that below this level the risk to hearing is negligible. Though limits have only been set to protect workers from excessive noise exposure, these limits are also relevant to the use of personal music players.
Most users of personal music players choose volume settings that lead to sound exposures below 80-85 dB(A), for less than an hour to 14 hours per week. When the above figures are adjusted to make them comparable to protection limits at the workplace, the majority of users are only at a minimal risk of hearing loss.
However, some people set the volume control very high – in the worst case up to about 120 dB(A) for some devices – or listen to music for many hours per day and may thus exceed safe limits. An estimated 5% to 10% of the listeners in EU are at risk of developing permanent hearing loss if exposure continues for after five or more years.
It is estimated that the share of young people exposed to loud sounds during their leisure time has tripled since the 1980s, now reaching nearly 20%. In the meantime exposure to noise at work has decreased.
11.2 What are the risks of prolonged exposure to loud sounds from personal music players?
Prolonged exposure to loud sounds from personal music players may result in:
- temporary hearing loss: the hearing threshold is temporarily no longer as low as before and it becomes harder to hear weak sounds. Listening to music between 94-104 dB SPL temporarily raises the hearing threshold by around 10 dB, and up to 30 dB for sensitive individuals.
- permanent hearing loss: the hearing threshold remains permanently lower than before. Due to conflicting result, it remains unclear whether the exposure of teenagers to personal music player music leads to permanent hearing loss when they get older.
- high-pitched ringing in the ears (tinnitus): Tinnitus occurs more frequently among personal music player users than among non-users.
- difficulties understanding speech in noisy conditions.
- acoustic isolation from the environment: Music from personal music players can mask warning noises or other environmental sounds, and can distract the listener. For instance, when people listen to personal music players, they may not hear cars approaching or trucks reversing, which is very dangerous.
- learning and memory impairment: During short-term exposure (15 minutes) to aircraft noise at levels of 55dB(A) or to combined aircraft and road traffic noise at 65 dB(A), learning and memorising a text may be more difficult. There is no reason to assume that music should be less harmful. Regular exposure to aircraft noise may also affect school performance, but the effect might be reversible once the noise exposure stops.
- increased blood pressure and heart diseases. Current data are insufficient to determine if music from personal music players constitutes a risk for high blood pressure and heart disease in children and young adults.
11.3 Under what condition can listening to personal music players be considered safe?
In order not to increase overall exposure, each 3 dB increase in sound levels must be compensated by halving the listening time. Therefore, 80 dB(A) of exposure for one hour per day, is equivalent to 83 dB(A) for 30 minutes per day or 86 dB(A) for 15 minutes per day , under the assumption that these exposures are repeated over a long period of time.
It should be noted that for a given device and volume setting, ear-bud-type headphones will increase exposure by 7-9 dB compared to other headsets.
Some health effects of noise that are not related to hearing have been observed even below 80 dB(A) and it is currently not possible to establish a sound level for personal music players that would prevent those harmful effects. More...
11.4 What further research is needed?
To assess the health risks resulting from the increased use of personal music players data is needed on:
- the way personal music players are currently used (exposure time and sound levels) as well as exposure of users to other sources of loud sounds;
- the contribution of noise to hearing difficulties;
- the impact of personal music players on hearing and on groups of people that may be more vulnerable based on long-term studies using sensitive methods;
- the characteristics that make an individual more vulnerable to sound exposure;
- whether excessive listening to personal music players leads to lasting and irreversible learning and attention deficits.