WASHINGTON — A disturbing number of high school students and adults are reporting early signs of hearing loss, and experts think they know the culprits: iPods and similar portable devices that allow people to funnel loud sounds into their ears for hours on end.
More research is needed to conclusively establish a link between hearing problems and the white cords dangling from millions of ears.
But scientists suspect the increasing prevalence of the MP3 devices is contributing to the rising number of people reporting some form of hearing loss.
Hearing experts who called a news conference here Tuesday to voice their concerns didn't use the words "crisis" or "epidemic," but it was clear they were worried about the results of a survey conducted by the polling firm Zogby International.
Twenty-eight percent of high school students questioned said they had to turn up the volume on a TV or radio to hear it better, for example, and 29% said they often found themselves saying, "What?" and "Huh?" during normal conversation.
Though that may sound like ordinary behavior for some teenagers, audiologists are taking it seriously, especially since the adult percentages weren't much lower.
"The results should give pause to anyone who's concerned about the nation's hearing health," said Alex Johnson, president of the American Speech-Language Hearing Assn., which is based in Rockville, Md.
"While the cause of the symptoms was not identified, the polling showed that people are listening louder and longer -- habits made easier by strides in listening technology, but ones that may also contribute to hearing damage," said Johnson, chairman of the audiology and speech-language pathology department at Wayne State University.
The leaps in technology that are allowing commuters on a bus or kids walking to high school to feel like they're at a deafening concert are also channeling ever higher volumes of music more directly, and longer, onto people's eardrums.
Johnson and others suggested that consumers take precautions, including parents monitoring the volume of the music as well as how long their children listen to it.