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February 15, 2019

ITU and WHO launch ‘safe listening’ toolkit to protect people’s hearing

By ITU News

Claps, percussion beats, chants, thundering drums, the sound of a river rippling, and mesmerizing songs.

Yesterday, staff from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) attending the launch of the ITU-WHO Safe Listening toolkit celebrated the power of sounds and music, while highlighting the importance of safe listening.


“We all love music, it is one of the things that makes life worth living”, said the WHO Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in between performances by percussion player Keith Middleton, vocalist Varijashree Venugopal, guitarist and voalist Lionel Park, and Grammy award winning artist Ricky Kej.

“But you can have too much of a good thing. There is a saying in our language: even honey is bitter if you eat too much.”

One billion at risk

A billion teenagers and young adults globally are at risk of developing hearing loss because they listen to music too long and too loud, explained Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus. Rising incomes and greater access to technology are increasing the numbers of people at risk, he added.

Once hearing loss due to loud sounds sets in, it cannot be reversed. Such hearing loss, if unaddressed, can greatly impact one’s ability to communicate, gain education or find and hold suitable employment.

“So how can we make technology work for us and not against us?” To answer that question, ITU and WHO worked together to develop a standard and toolkit to promote safe listening, Dr Tedros said.

The toolkit, launched today, provides practical guidance to support Member States, industry partners and civil society groups to use and implement the WHO-ITU H.870 international standard on safe listening devices and systems.

A new standard to protect hearing

Dr Shelly Chandha, Medical Officer at the World Health Organization, explained what the standard consisted of. “It is a set of recommendations for safe listening features that should be included on every personal listening device like a smart phone or an MP3 player.”

Dr Chandha explained that there are three sets of features. The first is a software that tracks how much and how long you are listening, and tells you how much sound you are getting. The second is a safety feature that includes automatic volume reduction and parental control — like giving people an optional safety belt in their device. The third feature is about making this information available to the user at the touch of the fingertip, so you can find out how much sound you have consumed today, or over the last week.

“With these features, we want to empower the users of these devices to make safe listening choices,” Dr Chandha emphasized.

“The next step is for countries is to take these standards and turn them into regulations to protect the hearing of their people.” — Dr Tedros, WHO Director General

Mr Malcolm Johnson, ITU Deputy Secretary-General, said: “It’s something we can all relate to. I certainly can relate to it because I have two granddaughters who are very active in their school rock band, and I’m always asking them to keep the sound down a bit. Now they will be able to see on their device that they are giving themselves a risk of losing their hearing.”

Wide partnerships key to success

Mr Johnson highlighted the importance of partnerships. “This is the first time we will have a standard where users are able to be aware of the risks they are entering into by listening to their devices…. ITU’s collaboration with WHO is very important. This standard and future standards are not just helping the technology to develop, but also helping to improve peoples’ health.”

“Because we have the industry developing those standards, they will be implementing those standards.” — Malcolm Johnson, ITU Deputy Sectretary-General

After the Artificial Intelligence for Good Global Summit was held last year in Geneva, a WHO-ITU Focus Group on AI for Health was created  to develop a range of standards that leverage AI for health, he said.

Dr Tedros also emphasized that “health professionals, policy-makers, parents, and manufacturers have a shared duty to create an environment where all people can listen safely and preserve their hearing.”

“The next step is for countries is to take these standards and turn them into regulations to protect the hearing of their people. But manufacturers do not have to wait for the regulations to start implementing these standards immediately,” he said.

Mr Malcolm Johnson added: “We have over 600 private sector companies as members at ITU. Of course, it’s the companies developing these standards. So you can be sure that, because we have the industry developing those standards, they will be implementing those standards.”

ITU H.870 focuses on the safe listening of ‘personal or portable audio systems,’ particularly music players. Future standards from ITU-WHO safe listening collaboration are expected to address communications and assistive devices as well as gaming consoles.

“We will be looking to them [ITU industry members and Academia] to help us develop further standards on AI for health,” said Malcolm Johnson.

“Every memory in my life is encapsulated by sound and music,” said musician Ricky Kej during the event. “I congratulate WHO and ITU on making listening safe and sustainable for everyone.”

View the photos from the event on Flickr here.

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ITU and WHO launch 'safe listening' toolkit to protect people's hearing

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