Views & Reviews Drug Tales and Other Stories

Listen up: deafness and personal audio players

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 07 July 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c3539
  1. Ike Iheanacho, editor, Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin
  1. iiheanacho{at}

    You’ve got to admire their skill. Every day they literally put their tiny bodies on the line, defying the murderous monsters that are never far away.

    The mice that live in the London Underground railway are a nerveless bunch. Witness how they sometimes leave it to the last possible seconds before scuttling to safety from unforgiving tonnes of rolling stock. This display is particularly impressive, because it’s questionable just how well they can hear the oncoming danger, given their lifetime exposure to noise from the carriages. Perhaps they have to rely also on other cues, such as vibration of the rails or the telltale breeze in the tunnel, to make their slick getaways.

    People travelling a few metres above may eventually need a similar adaptive capacity, because there too lurks a serious threat to hearing. This comes not from the trains (at least not directly) but from the way many commuters choose to spend their journeys.

    The pop-in earphones, trailing wires, and discreetly placed MP3 player have become standard wear for those who use music as distraction from the tedium and discomfort of journeys—and increasingly to render themselves prematurely deaf.

    It’s not that these train users are more cavalier in this respect than other people. They’re certainly not alone in getting pleasure from listening to music through headphones. But doing this on the Underground invites additional risk, because here the desire to listen to Mahler or Dizzee Rascal at full blast must compete with the background rumble and screech of the train itself, prompting further increases in playback volume.

    Concerns about unwitting hearing loss from personal music players have been raised publicly from time to time, most recently in UK deaf awareness week, which was two weeks ago. But however well informed, passionately argued, and well intentioned such warnings, they’ll be hard pressed to influence much of their target group. Young people in particular might ignore or be unimpressed by exhortations to alter the way they live for what may seem an intangible, distant benefit. And default “safe” settings on players (as planned by the European Union) aren’t a complete answer either, seeing that they can be overridden.

    So, in addition to the focus on prevention by individuals, a more overt societal recognition of the prospect of widespread self inflicted deafness is needed. Are we truly prepared for a world in which more and more children are deafer than their parents? And where evidence from the human ear is a less reliable guide than the movements of a mouse?


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c3539


    • From the archive: Editorial, “Hearing loss and personal music players,” BMJ 2010;340:c1261, doi:10.1136/bmj.c1261

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