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Music and hearing loss

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X-Ray production team X-Ray production team | 19:34 UK time, Monday, 2 November 2009

Whatever your music tastes - whether it's Beethoven or the Black Eyed Peas - whenever we hear a song we love, we all do the same thing: turn the volume up.

Gadgets like MP3 players and mobile phones are great for listening to our favourite tracks wherever and whenever we like, but many of us are turning it up too loud, too often and risking our health in the process.

The Royal National Institute for Deaf People has warned we face a "hearing loss time bomb". When the RNID tested listeners in Cardiff, they discovered that more than half were listening at peak volumes higher than 85 decibels - a level which can cause permanent hearing damage over time.

Rhodri went to Glyndwr University in Wrexham to find out whether the students are giving their hearing a hard time.

Rhodri joined the RNID's Don't Lose the Music squad who have a novel way of revealing who really needs to decrease their decibels. Clare Kingston explained they have a head which uses a sound metre to measures the volume of people's MP3 players. The head works on a traffic light system.

Green means that you can listen to it for as long as you like. Amber means that it's a little bit too loud, it needs to go down a little bit, so you shouldn't really listen to it at that volume for more than four hours a day. If it goes red that means stop, danger, it's far too loud.

Rhodri and Clare tested the students and discovered that while a number of them thought they were listening at a safe level, they were actually in the red zone.

But long before the days of downloads, one man who loved his music loud was musician Paul Gray. In the 70s and 80s, he found fame as bassist with Eddie and the Hot Rods and punk rock band The Damned. But he loved listening to music almost as much as playing it.

He told Rhodri that he would listen to music all the time, using headphones on buses, planes, trains and even at home. He said it was everyone did it and thought hearing damage would only come from working down the mines or in the steel works. He never thought he would be one of the people saying it is too loud.

When he realised his ears were still ringing three weeks after a tour that Paul - then just 34 - knew there was a problem. But despite the warnings and medical advice, he kept on playing and listening to music. Today, he suffers with tinnitus and hyperacusis - a condition which makes him incredibly sensitive to certain frequencies.

He explained that general every day noise like car alarms, car engines, car horns, buses, doors banging, knives on plates, glasses clinking, people laughing, the timbre of someone's voice can almost physically knock him back. He admitted the scariest moment was while holding his little boy Jeff. He shouted and Paul nearly dropped him because the reaction was to try and get rid of the source of the discomfort.

So how exactly does loud music cause damage to our ears? Sarah Canton, an audiologist at Wrexham Maelor Hospital told Rhodri that when you're listening to music or any kind of loud sound, sound waves travel down the ear canal, hit the ear drum, vibrate the little bones, and then stimulate, there's fluid sitting in the cochlea which is the sensitive part of the ear.

In this part are millions of little hair cells, and in response to that movement of fluid they will actually bend and send electrical impulses up to the brain. Now if they're continually being pounded by loud levels of music they'll actually start to bend and can damage, they can break.

Dullness in your ears, and a ringing in your ears is actually a warning sign that you've done some temporary damage to your hearing. Now if you ignore that, you keep going out clubbing, listening to music at very loud levels, eventually you get to the stage where it's cumulative and your hearing damage won't recover, so it will become permanent.

So over time, those high frequencies will start to drop down and you'll get to the stage where clarity of speech becomes an issue.

Ignoring the warnings cost Paul his dream job as a rock star. Today, through his work with the Musicians Union in Cardiff, he hopes to stop the next generation making the same mistakes.

He told Rhodri that part of his job is going to talk to students advising them about health and safety issues. One of the first questions he asks is who has had ringing ears after going to a concert or rehearsing or listening to music. He said nine out of 10 students put their hands up which scares him as these kids are 17, 18, 19 years old and the fact that they've got their ears ringing now means they've already got the inset of some kind of hearing damage.

Change is on the way... the EU European Union is planning new rules to restrict the pre-set volumes on personal music players to 80db, a level considered safe for normal use. But until things change it's up to us to turn down the volume.

Visit the RNID's Don't Lose the Music website.

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