The European Commission (EC) met earlier this week to discuss troubling findings in a report released last October, warning of a possible hearing loss epidemic due to listening to portable music players at high sound levels.

The study, by the EC’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks, titled “Potential health risks of exposure to noise from personal music players and mobile phones including a music playing function”, focuses on the effects of ‘social noise’ exposure.

Before getting into the specific causes and effects of social noise exposure, the study notes that social noise exposure to young people in the EC has tripled in the past two decades while on-the-job noise exposure has decreased, suggesting that social noise should be accorded a higher priority by legislators and regulators.

The study also noted that, “The increase in unit sales of portable audio devices including MP3 has been phenomenal in the EU over the last four years. Estimated units sales ranged between 184-246 million for all portable audio devices and between 124-165 million for MP3 players.”

The survey estimates that 5 to 10 percent of all portable music player users in the EC are at risk for hearing loss due to the levels, patterns and durations at which they listen. That translates to an estimated 2.5 to 10 million users across the EC who have listened at high volume levels for more than an hour each day over a period of five years or more.

The study also notes that many users who like their music loud play it at levels above 89 decibels, exceeding the level which is currently allowed for workplace noise.

The EC meeting this week looked at several options to address the hearing loss situation, including technical solutions and changes in existing regulations. France has already established regulations limiting the maximum volume at which music players sold there can be played. In response, Apple has installed a volume limiter on its iPod players sold there.

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