Music lovers are set to benefit from a new ITU standard designed to ensure that their appreciation of music lasts for years to come. The standard offers guidelines for the safe listening of music players in support of the WHO ‘Make Listening Safe’ initiative.
‘Sound-induced hearing loss’ is the world’s leading cause of preventable hearing loss. Instances of sound-induced hearing loss among young people are increasing, leading WHO to estimate that it risks affecting over a billion young people worldwide.
The new international standard – ITU H.870 “Guidelines for safe listening devices/systems” – highlights the motivations behind its development: “Hearing loss can occur as a consequence of listening to high levels of sound over prolonged periods of time. The unsafe use of personal audio devices poses a threat to the hearing of millions.”
ITU H.870 was developed by the ITU standardization expert group for multimedia, ITU-T Study Group 16, in close collaboration with WHO. ITU-T Study Group 16 also leads ITU’s technical work on e-health, ICT human factors, and the accessibility of ICTs to persons with disabilities.
Think of the sensation you may have experienced following a loud concert or sporting event, the temporary sensation that your hearing has become less sensitive. Sounds seem almost muffled. Specialists call this a ‘temporary threshold shift’.
Hearing normally recovers. But with sound-induced hearing loss, it does not. That threshold shift is permanent.
“Sound-induced hearing loss is not necessarily silence,” explains Masahito Kawamori, Keio University, Rapporteur for ITU-T Study Group 16’s work on accessibility and e-health. “It can translate into an inability to discern different voices in noisy settings and it has a strong connection to sound-induced tinnitus, incessant ringing in the ears for the rest of one’s life.”
“The damage can be slowed or halted, but it cannot be reversed,” adds Kawamori.
Whoopi Goldberg, Eric Clapton, Chris Martin and Neil Young are among the many celebrities affected by sound-induced tinnitus. They are speaking out to ensure that others with a love of sound take precautions to preserve their ability to enjoy it.
WHO launched its ‘Make Listening Safe’ initiative in 2015 and continues to collaborate with ITU in the development of relevant technical standards.
“This new standard is a prime example of the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration,” says Shelly Chadha, Lead Technical Officer for WHO’s programme on the prevention of deafness and hearing loss. “Matching complementary WHO and ITU expertise has proven very valuable to both organizations, helping us to ensure that the benefits of health and ICT convergence are realized on a global scale.”
ITU H.870 focuses on the safe listening of ‘personal or portable audio systems’, particularly music players. It is the first standard to result from ITU-WHO safe listening collaboration, with future standards in the series expected to address communications and assistive devices as well as gaming consoles.
“Our collaboration with WHO on safe listening began in 2015, but it takes advantage of many years of ITU-WHO collaboration in multimedia, health and accessibility,” says Simão Campos, Counsellor to ITU- Study Group 16. “This collaboration looks set to become even more important as ICTs become central to innovation in healthcare.”
“Widespread access to music players has yet to be matched with widespread access to clear information on safe listening behaviour, increasing the number of people at risk of developing hearing loss,” says Chadha. “But technology has also proven valuable in promoting healthy lifestyles, and ITU H.870 aims to ensure that this is the case for music players.”
The risk of sound-induced hearing loss depends on how loud the sounds are as well as how long and how often a person is exposed to them, explains ITU H.870.
The standard details the requirements of safe-listening devices. It also offers a glossary of terms to build common understanding of the factors at play, as well as background information on sound, hearing and hearing loss.
ITU H.870 recommends the use of two criteria when providing for safe listening, making a distinction between children and adults.
The standard offers a set of guidelines for communications encouraging safe listening behaviour, guidance that will assist industry in delivering end-users appropriate, effective warning messages when necessary.
“We believe that this standard will make a very real impact on millions of people’s lives,” says Chadha.
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