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'Body Electric': How our headphone habits affect our hearing

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK. Sorry in advance, but are you ready for today's alarming health statistic? According to the World Health Organization, more than 1 billion teens and young adults aged 12 to 35 are at risk of permanent, avoidable hearing loss due to, quote-unquote, "unsafe listening practices." Why is this happening? Well, one reason - headphones and earbuds. NPR host Manoush Zomorodi has been talking about how our headphone habits are affecting our hearing on the latest episode of Body Electric, and she's here with us now to tell us more about it. Good morning, Manoush.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So what does the W.H.O. mean by unsafe listening practices?

ZOMORODI: Yeah. So part of the problem is spending time in noisy places. But also, as you mentioned, we have a growing headphone habit. Last year, consumers bought twice the number of headphones than they did a decade before. That was over half a billion pairs. These devices are integrated into our lives like never before. So we asked listeners about how they listen these days. I want to play you clips from Aaron Kalasher-Coggins (ph), Diego Rojas (ph), and Megan Monteleone (ph).

AARON KALASHER-COGGINS: I do kind of have an addiction, really, to just listening to something - being bombarded with noise.

DIEGO ROJAS: I wear my noise canceling headphones listening to music at least eight hours a day.

MEGAN MONTELEONE: I have them up so loud, like, louder than anything around me in my surroundings.

MARTIN: Manoush, I have to say, it is striking how many people seem to be wearing headphones all the time. What are the health risks that you're thinking about right now? Is it just that people are keeping the volume up too high?

ZOMORODI: Well, that's been the question, actually. So I've been talking to the University of Michigan's Rick Neitzel. So Rick is an exposure scientist, and he and his team are in the midst of a first-of-its-kind study with Apple. Right now, they have over 180,000 volunteers across the country who are sharing their phone and watch data and taking remote hearing tests, and the goal is to figure out exactly how our tech habits are changing. People are listening longer, but are they listening louder? What about the noise in their environment? Does it matter what we're listening to? Here's Rick Neitzel.

RICK NEITZEL: Most of that evidence says it's not specifically what you're listening to but simply the intensity or the volume that you're listening and for how long you're listening that drives any risk.

ZOMORODI: So looking at all these factors combined, when does listening turn into hearing loss? Rick says one out of three participants are exposed to noise levels that the W.H.O. considers harmful. And of course, when we're in loud environments, what do we do? We crank the volume on whatever we're listening to.

MARTIN: Wow. OK, so other than turning it off, Manoush, and just sitting in a quiet room, what can we do?

ZOMORODI: There's good news here, Michel. There are three easy things we can do right now. First of all, limit how loud you can listen. Dig into your phone settings. Choose the lowest maximum volume, ideally 70dB. Second, consider how long you listen. Your ears need time to recover, so if you listen a lot, make sure you get some quiet time afterwards. And third, if you have it, use the noise canceling feature when you are in a loud place. Obviously though, if you're in a high traffic area, be safe. Transparency mode protects your ears, too.

MARTIN: That is Manoush Zomorodi, the host of Body Electric and TED Radio Hour. You can get a full list of tips and listen to the episode at npr.org/bodyelectric. I should also mention that Apple is a financial supporter of NPR, but, of course, we cover them as we do any other company. Thank you, Manoush.

ZOMORODI: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.