Cape Town - A hearing specialist has called for strict regulation of devices such as MP3 players, saying they can cause permanent hearing damage if used incorrectly.

Sean Overall, an acoustician from Medihear, a Durban-based supplier of hearing aids, said MP3s, Bluetooth-enabled devices, iPods and cellphones had “fundamentally similar technology” to hearing devices that could cause permanent damage.

He was responding to a warning from the Health Professions Council of SA over the illegal sale of hearing amplifiers as hearing aids by retail pharmacies.

The council’s speech, language and hearing professional board said the sale of these hearing devices and their prescription by unregistered persons was not only illegal, but their incorrect use could result in irreversible hearing loss.

Overall said the availability of high-powered MP3-type players with decibel (dB) outputs of more than 120dB – deafening sound – could easily be bought by young people and adults, online and from retail stores. Sound levels beyond 75dB threshold can result in noise-induced hearing loss.

“These devices contain fundamentally similar technology to the hearing devices such as a receiver or amplifier, microphone or chip. This then suggests that the only difference between the hearing devices and the MP3-type players is the intended use,” he said.

Given their widespread use in South Africa, particularly by young people who were at even higher risk of damaging their hearing, Overall argued that they ”should be considered more dangerous than any hearing device” and should therefore be regulated.


A study done by Ghent University in Belgium on the impact of MP3s and iPods on hearing, found that listening to an MP3 player for even an hour could induce short-term hearing loss.

The 2010 study, which was published in the Archives of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, pointed out that while researchers could not determine permanent impact on hearing, damage to the “hair cells” in the inner ear was five times worse after an hour of listening in those who had earbuds and six times worse in those who listened with headphones.

Considering the reduction in hearing sensitivity after listening to a personal music player, researchers wrote that “these devices are potentially harmful”. The longer one listened to an MP3 player, the more damage was likely to be done.

Lize Nel, spokesperson for the Health Professions Council, acknowledged that elevated noise levels from music devices could result in hearing loss.

“We fully agree that these devices have negative effects on hearing and that caution should be exercised by those who use them. The council can, however, only issue a warning as we don’t regulate the use of these devices. We only regulate practitioners.” - Cape Argus