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By Kathy Peck
Q: I use my MP3 player so often that I'm surprised the earbuds haven't become permanently attached to my ears. Should I worry about hearing loss? How much music can you listen to before you start going deaf?
A: Yes, you should worry about hearing loss. Everyone should. What matters is how long you listen and at what volume. Loud noises destroy the microscopic hairs in the inner ear that transmit sound to the auditory nerve. The hairs never recover and cannot be repaired, so do your best to avoid loud noises today, tomorrow, forever.
Volume is measured in decibels (dB). Normal conversation registers about 60 dB; most restaurants, 70; vacuum cleaners, 80; motorcycles, 90; jack hammers, 100; rock concerts, 100 to 130; and gunshots, 140. Hearing damage begins with exposure to volume over 80 dB, and the longer it lasts, the more damage you suffer.
About those earbuds: Don't listen at a volume greater than about half of what's possible with your MP3 player (the levels of which vary wildly -- anywhere between 100 dB and 120 dB -- all of which are too loud for auditory health). Another way to tell if you're over-cranking: In quiet surroundings, hold your earbuds at arm's length. If you can hear the music from that distance (two to three feet), the volume's too loud.
Anyone exposed to loud noise -- musicians, rock fans, construction workers and motorcycle and gun sports enthusiasts -- should wear ear protection, either foam ear plugs available at drug stores or, ideally, custom-made ear protection.
Kathy Peck, former bass player for the San Francisco female rock trio The Contractions, is now an audiologist. In 1988, her own hearing loss spurred her to found Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers (HEAR). She has won numerous awards from the music industry for her work in hearing protection. For more information about custom ear protection, visit the HearNet Web site.
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