New WHO-ITU Standard Released On “Safe Listening” To Prevent Hearing Loss

The World Health Organization and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) have partnered to develop the first-ever international standard for “safe listening” devices, including smartphones and audio players, to raise awareness and to prevent sound-induced hearing loss. Over 1 billion teenagers and young adults are at risk of hearing loss around the world due to unsafe levels of sound, according to the WHO.

The new international standard, “Safe Listening: Devices and Systems [pdf],” applies to the manufacture and use of audio devices and systems, and was developed under the WHO’s “Make Listening Safe” initiative, “which seeks to improve listening practices especially among young people,” according to a WHO press release.

“The WHO-ITU standard for safe listening devices was developed by experts from WHO and ITU over a two-year process drawing on the latest evidence and consultations with a range of stakeholders, including experts from government, industry, consumers and civil society,” it said.

“Given that we have the technological know-how to prevent hearing loss, it should not be the case that so many young people continue to damage their hearing while listening to music,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (Dr Tedros) said in the release.

“They must understand that once they lose their hearing, it won’t come back,” he said. “This new WHO-ITU standard will do much to better safeguard these young consumers as they go about doing something they enjoy.”

Governments and manufacturers are now being asked to adopt the voluntary WHO-ITU standard on safe listening devices, and to aid in this process, the WHO has developed a “Toolkit for safe listening devices and systems [pdf]”.

The toolkit also calls on civil society to “advocate with policy makers” for the implementation of these standards “as a means to prevent hearing loss.”

“Safe Listening” Features

The WHO-ITU standard on safe listening recommends certain “safe listening” features to be included in personal audio devices, which provide users with information on their listening profile to reduce the risk of hearing loss. The standard explains that these features are proposed “with the aim to drive behaviour change for safe listening.”

The standard proposes that “all personal audio devices should measure the listener’s exposure to sound based on two possible operational modes of reference exposure.”

One mode is for adults set at “1.6 Pa2h per 7 days as the reference exposure (derived from 80 dBA for 40 hours a week),” and the second is for sensitive users such as children set at “0.51 Pa2h per 7 days as the reference exposure (derived from 75 dB for 40 hours a week).”

These “safe listening” features, summarised by the release, include:

  • “’Sound allowance’ function: software that tracks the level and duration of the user’s exposure to sound as a percentage used of a reference exposure.
  • Personalized profile: an individualized listening profile, based on the user’s listening practices, which informs the user of how safely (or not) he or she has been listening and gives cues for action based on this information.
  • Volume limiting options: options to limit the volume, including automatic volume reduction and parental volume control.
  • General information: information and guidance to users on safe listening practices, both through personal audio devices and for other leisure activities.”

Effects of Prolonged Loud Noise on Hearing

The WHO-ITU toolkit states that it is “estimated that 50% of those listening to music over their personal audio devices do so at levels that put their hearing at risk.”

“Exposure to loud sounds for any length of time,” the standard explains, “causes fatigue of the ear’s sensory cells.” For short periods of time, this can lead to a “ringing or a buzzing” in the ear, and hearing will improve as the sensory cells recover.

However, when “exposure is particularly loud, regular or prolonged,” it says, this “can cause permanent damage of the sensory cells and other structures, resulting in irreversible hearing loss.”

Continued exposure to loud sounds, it says, could lead to “progressive hearing loss, ultimately affecting speech comprehension and resulting in a negative impact on the individual’s quality of life.”

According to the toolkit, “40% of those frequenting such discotheques, clubs, sporting events or music concerts are exposed to potentially damaging sound levels,” and the “widespread uptake of personal audio devices such as smartphones and MP3 players has added to this risk.”

“Smartphone use in developing countries has grown from 45% in 2013 to 54% in 2015,” it says. In developed countries, “this figure stands at 87%.”

On 14 February, the WHO and ITU will launch the global standard for safe listening devices at a “Sound of Life” concert featuring musician Ricky Kej at the WHO.


Image Credits: WHO-ITU.