NIH Studies iPod Hearing Risk

by Janet Meyer Mar 21, 2006

By now you’ve probably heard about lawsuits alleging that the Apple iPod causes hearing loss. If not, check out Darcy Richardson’s article Patterson Files Lawsuit Against Apple. This is a class action lawsuit alleging that the Apple iPod has the potential to cause hearing loss.

Some of our politicians are also looking into this issue. According to Congressman Ed Markey, he has sent a letter to James F. Battey, Director of the National Institutes of Health and Other Communications Disorders, National Institutes of Health. In it he asked several questions for the NIH to review.

Critics suggest that Markey is trying to legislate behavior. There is no reason that iPod users can’t just turn down the music to keep the risk of hearing loss low. Before deciding, read the letter to the NIH. He asks some reasonable questions.

Markey first asks if portable music players contribute to early hearing loss. This is a question that has been asked before. According to the Washington Post, hearing loss in Americans has more than doubled since 1971. Researchers have looked at users of portable music players (particularly portable CD players) and found an increased risk for those who listened to them at high volumes for extended periods of time. In other words, the answer to this question would appear to be “yes.”

The second question Markey asked was what consumers can do to protect their hearing without giving up their music. Note that he asked what consumers can do, not what manufacturers can do. This leaves responsibility with the consumer.

The next two questions are related. He asked what research is available regarding safe volume and time limits. Then he asked specifically for similar information regarding portable music devices. This research has also been done in the past.

The next question from Markey was whether earbuds increased risk over earmuff-style headphones. This question did not mention the iPod, but the earbuds that come with the iPod have been cited by others questioning hearing loss.

Sixth and last, Markey asked if sound-minimizing headphones are better for your hearing than either of the other headphones.

As of March 14, the NIH has responded. According to USA Today, more research is needed. I don’t know if this means they are going to go ahead with the research or not.

One thing to note about the class action lawsuit is that the iPod is being sued for the potential to cause hearing loss. This is another area where the answer is, of course, a clear “yes.” Lawn mowers and rock concerts also have this potential. I would worry more about this lawsuit being used to legislate behavior than I would about Markey’s letter to the National Institutes of Health.

In the lawsuit, Patterson blames the iPod for defects in design that cause hearing loss. I’m not sure how he can blame the iPod for the earbud design when the NIH hasn’t determined that they are to blame. Earbuds have been with us for quite awhile; they weren’t invented by Apple. Patterson also wants iPods to be made with a cap of 100 decibals. 100 decibals is about the volume of a chain saw, which can cause hearing damage after two hours. This type of lawsuit is asking for specific changes that Markey’s letter never asked for.

What I find most interesting about all of this is what it tells us about the success of the iPod. The lawsuit is asking for iPod changes, even though there are other MP3 volumes with the same potential for problems. When Markey’s letter mentioned the iPod, it was in the phrase iPod and other portable music players. Yet headlines from USA Today, the Washington Post, and many others who reported on it only referred to the iPod. It appears that the iPod is becoming so successful it’s becoming the generic name for digital music players.

As a consumer, I wish there was a standardized volume adjustment on earphones that would give the volume in decibals. Since that isn’t going to happen, just remember to use common sense when putting sound next to your ears. Play the music quietly enough to hear people if they talk to you. Don’t play for hours and hours just because you can. If you have concerns about hearing loss with earbuds, use headphones that don’t go in your ear canal. If others tell you they can hear your music, it’s too loud.

No matter what you think of Patterson’s lawsuit or Markey’s letter, pay attention to the volume on your iPod. You bought it to listen to music. The best way to continue enjoying it is to protect your hearing.





  • “This leaves responsibility with the consumer.”

    An act absolutely impossible in certain countries as it seems. Let’s rather cripple some hardware so people can throw away their lower-efficiency headphones and keep courts busy while we’re at it. If it wastes time & money, it is all good.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Mar 21, 2006 Posts: 371
  • I don’t see how this case can be heard at all, or if it must, that it is levelled at one company alone, and not at ALL manufactures that make it so that the consumer has the “potential” to damage the ears.

    Also, I totally agree that it is about modifying behaviour. And i believe that this is something that should be heard, as it infringes on everybody’s freedom to do to themselves what they will. How is this case different to taking 30 paracetamol tablets at once? Each has the “potenial” to harm, but it is up to the consumer’s free will to “damage” themselves.

    However, if this case is set, then what precedent does it set? Can I sue Joe for damages because he mows his lawn every saturday afternoon?

    Though perhaps it’s because I’m Aussie and don’t sue everybody I can (hehe sorry for the generalisation US citizens!)

    In any case, this is going to be interesting…

    Hungryjoe had this to say on Mar 22, 2006 Posts: 10
  • Well, money-grabbing lawsuits aside, hearing loss is a massively underlooked issue. I’m sure I said this already, but the fact this guy’s bringing mass attention to it is a good deed in my book.

    Luke Mildenhall-Ward had this to say on Mar 22, 2006 Posts: 299
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