J. M.

Williams

Sounds Damaging the Hearing

Earbud Insertion and Hearing Safety
By John Michael Williams
jmmwill@comcast.net 2013 June 05

A tiny "earbud" device can risk damage to the hearing.

Copyright © 2013, John Michael Williams All Rights Reserved
Based on a letter printed in 2007 in the Tinnitus discussion topic at yahoogroups.com.

J. M. Williams

Sounds Damaging the Hearing

1

Thanks are due to Keta, for quoting a description of tinnitus from Encyclopedia Brittanica (online edition). The following is my answer to several questions raised about tinnitus and auditory processing. Although the total power of the sounds emitted by a telephone or mobile phone receiver is small, the sound source is very close to the ear. Thus, even at low power levels, such devices can be damaging to the hearing organs. The only thing potentially worse than a receiver (of any kind) held against the ear would be an "earbud", which is inserted inside the ear and thus is even closer to the eardrum than a telephone or mobile phone receiver. Concerning the discussion of telephones, I am surprised that a telephone receiver could be close enough to the eardrum to be harmful, but I suppose it is possible, especially if the time of exposure was long -- say hours. For long conversations, I guess a speakerphone would be better than a hand-held device. Here's some biophysical background: The eardrum vibrates to sounds, pushes against little bones in the middle ear, and initiates all other air-conducted hearing. Thus, sound intensity at the eardrum determines how loud sounds will be. When the source of sound is small, as from an earbud, its effect can be modelled by the "inverse-square law". This law just says that power per unit area, or intensity, drops as 1/(square of the distance). Thus, suppose that an earbud could emit a little more than 1 Watt of power; this means that, at a distance of 1 meter, the intensity would be 10 microWatts/(square cm). Don't bother worrying over this initial calculation, but they are assumed to be reasonable. In the following, I'll write microWatts/(square cm) as uW/cm2. A meter, m, of course, is a shade bigger than an English yard. A cm is 1/100 m and is about 1/2.5 inch. Now, 10 uW/cm2 is not much intensity, but anyone with normal hearing certainly could hear a sound of that value easily. However, let's see what happens according to the inverse-square law as we bring this loudspeaker-earbud from a distance of 1 m, gradually closer to the eardrum: Distance 1m 1/2 m 1/4 m 1 cm 1/2 cm 1/10 cm 1/(distance squared) 1 m2 1/4 m2 1/16 m2 1/10,000 m2 1/40,000 m2 1/100,000 m2 Intensity 10 uW/cm2 40 uW/cm2 160 uW/cm2 0.1 W/cm2 (Watts!) 0.4 W/cm2 10 W/cm2

J. M. Williams

Sounds Damaging the Hearing

2

1/2 cm is about the distance from the side of the head (telephone or mobile phone receiver) to the eardrum. A 1-W earbud would be deafening at 1/2 cm, but most earbuds won't emit anything near 1 W. I used 1 Watt just to simplify the calculations. Whatever the intensity at 1/2 cm, inserting the earbud might bring it within 1/10 cm of the eardrum, making the distance 1/5 less and the intensity 25 times greater. For this reason, earbuds are very risky to ones hearing: Just pushing idly against one could vary the sound intensity by a factor of 10 or more, exceeding the safe level and contributing to damage resulting in tinnitus or even deafness. For example, a 1/10 W earbud at 1/10 cm would deliver 1 W/cm2 to the eardrum, literally deafeningly loud, possibly for hour after hour of listening. In addition to avoiding earbuds, I think that the basic idea here is that it's good to give your ears a rest for part of the day . . .. We do this anyway, when we sleep at night, but maybe more is necessary -- especially for those of us who use earphones of any type.