Photo credit: Thirdman

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This “Ask Well” column in The New York Times tries to answer the question, “Are earbuds damaging my hearing?” To me, the answer is clear: “Yes!”

I am quoted extensively in the column, which appeared first online and then in print. The reporter didn’t include my somewhat inflammatory statement–“Looking for a safe earbud is like looking for a safe cigarette. You won’t find one!”–but that’s what the evidence strongly suggests. To be able to understand what one is listening to, personal listening device users invariably have to turn up the volume to overcome ambient noise. Since ambient noise levels in most cities are higher than 70 decibels, the safe noise exposure level determined by the Environmental Protection Agency.

As noise colleague, Jan Mayes, and I wrote last year in Proceedings of Meetings on Acoustics, personal listening using headphones or earbuds is unsafe at any sound. A Dutch study found evidence of auditory damage in personal listening device users as young as 9-11 years old and a recent study found hearing loss in Korean teenaged users of personal listening devices.

I took French and not Latin in high school, but I think this advice in Latin is correct: “Caveat auditor.” Listener beware.

Because if your favorite song or audiobook or podcast sounds loud when you are in a quiet room at home, it’s too loud, and your auditory health is at risk.