In-ear headphones may be causing hearing loss epidemic in teens

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NEW DORP, Staten Island (PIX11) -- Thanks to the increase in the number and efficiency of iPhones, Android phones and other personal electronic devices that deliver directly into the ear canal, people's hearing -- especially that of teens and young adults -- is deteriorating at a rate never seen before.

That's what a recently released survey of teens nationwide has concluded, and it underscores a growing problem that audiologists say they're having to work harder to deal with, even though the situation is preventable.

At the Siemens Hearing Implements manufacturing facility in Piscataway, the low volume buzz of small hand drills, buffing tools and other handheld manufacturing implements is seemingly everywhere.  For many people, though, especially teens and young adults, that assembly floor hum is the result of other sounds, and those sounds are not low volume by any means.

Loud music, delivered straight to the aural system through ear buds or other in-the-ear earphones, can easily create conditions that strongly promote potential hearing loss.  In fact, in a survey carried out by a third party for the audio instruments division of Siemens asked 500 teens if they had experienced ringing, roaring, buzzing or pain in their ears, and nearly half -- 46 percent -- said they had.

That represents a significant increase in potential signs of hearing loss.  A similar survey was done four years ago, and it concluded that about 1 in 5, or 20 percent, or teens showed signs of hearing loss.

Alexandra Earl, 19, of Passaic, New Jersey, knows firsthand what it means to have a loss of hearing.  She  was diagnosed with a significant hearing loss when she was 16.  Now, with the help of a pair of hearing aids, she can hear most things well.

Her impairment could be the result of a number of factors, but,according to Earl's audiologists, her situation was made worse by her listening to music on her cellphone at a very high volume.

"You don't realize the sounds you miss out on," Earl said, "the birds chirping, the insects at night.  Honestly, you don't realize you're missing out on that."

Her advice to people of all ages who crank up the volume on their cellphones is simple.  "Turn it down," Earl said.  "You don't want to miss [anything].  It's not worth it."

One of her two audiologists agrees, adding that at her office, they're not surprised at the increase in young people reporting potential signs of hearing loss.  In fact, the audiologist, Dr. Zhannetta Shapiro, said that at her practice, called Audiology Island, there's an increase of cases of young people.

So despite not feeling surprised by the new survey results, Dr Shapiro said, "It's relieving to be able to see the numbers,  especially because it's such a preventable type of hearing loss."

Her partner audiologist, Dr. Stella Fulman, added, "One of the most surprising things is teenagers know the risks, and they still do it."

There are alternatives, as the doctors and the Siemens corporation point out.  Siemens is not only one of the country's largest manufacturers of custom made hearing aids, it also makes specialized ear plugs.

They have audio filters built in which filter out loud noises, but still allow moderate sound into your ear normally.  "[They're] for musicians and for teenagers," for example, said Siemens vice president Chas Kuratko, so you can wear earphones "and they won't damage your hearing."

Another solution, of course, is to simply turn down the volume.  Earl's audiologists and Siemens executives both recommended a free sound level meter app, which tells a cellphone user the decibel level at which the phone is emitting sound.  If it's 85 or higher, just turn the phone down.