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Music to the ears? Popular iPods could damage hearing

The ubiquitous white earbuds of the iPod have long been criticized by some as detrimental to the everyday casual interactions that shape college life.

According to a national survey released by Zogby two weeks ago, however, there maybe another problem for critics to lambaste-hearing loss.

Listening to loud music for a prolonged period of time irreparably damages the delicate hairs in the ear that allow hearing, said Gwendolyn O'Grady, clinical director of audiology at Duke University Medical Center.

In addition to the release of the survey, there may be more bad news for Apple.

John Kiel Patterson of Louisiana is suing the company in the U.S. District Court in San Jose, California.

He alleges that his iPod is not safe for prolonged use because it generates a dangerous noise level in excess of 115 decibels.

O'Grady said the national standards for safe listening vary but are usually approximately 75 decibels or lower, roughly the same noise level as a piano being played forcefully.

"[The standards] are really meaningless because students don't know the decibel level of their music unless they have a sound meter, which costs around $1600," she explained.

Although the survey did not directly link hearing loss to MP3 players such as iPods, it did cite some sound equipment as being able to blast music and sounds as high as 120 decibel levels-as loud as a jet taking off.

Another difficulty in determining a safe listening level is that people have varying tolerances, so there is no test that could be done to determine whether a person will eventually lose their hearing, O'Grady said.

Apple spokesperson Todd Wilder refused to comment directly on the study, but the company recently made a free download available online that allows users to set a personal volume limit, or for parents to set one for their children.

The program was in response to "increased attention" to the possible side-effects of MP3 player use, said Greg Joswiak, Apple's vice president of hardware marketing.

O'Grady attended an online interactive seminar hosted by Brian Fligor-a leading researcher in audiology at Children's Hospital Boston-on output levels of personal stereo systems.

"One thing that came out of the seminar was that at first people thought earbuds were so much worse than headphones or speakers, but the seminar [concluded] that was not necessarily true," O'Grady said.

"With other headphones or a car radio you can still hear other noises, so you turn the music up even louder to block out other sounds than you would with the earbuds."

Some Duke students, however, were not surprised by the survey's results.

"I read that Pete Townshend from The Who said it's bad for your ears because being in the studio listening to headphones is what made his hearing go away," sophomore Sarah Eagle said.

"So I know about it, but it doesn't really stop me."

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