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House of Commons Hansard
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Personal Hearing Systems
23 March 2010
Volume 508

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mary Creagh.)

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We all know about the curse of binge drinking, and we all know that when alcohol is taken to excess it causes lasting damage to a person’s health. What is not so well known—indeed, it seems to be something of a state secret—is the curse of “binge listening” to personal music systems, collectively known as MP3s. MP3s are an invention from the last decade of the 20th century that has taken serious hold in the first decade of the third millennium.

Every day millions of people plug into MP3s, individual music systems that pump music, often very loud music, straight into the ears of users who are oblivious to the fact that they are destroying their hearing. The figures are staggering. It is estimated that 10 million people in the United Kingdom, and more than 100 million in the European Union, have MP3 systems, which are often generically—but wrongly—described as iPods. On the 453 “bendy bus” travelling to the House of Commons from the Old Kent road at 6.15 this morning, I counted six passengers of the 18 in the section in which I was travelling who were plugged into MP3s.

It can be said, in blunt terms, that a contemporary 20-year-old serial user of an MP3 will, at the age of 40, have the hearing capacity of someone aged 60. That is the prediction of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. The RNID, as it is more generally called nowadays, very kindly helped me with the background for my speech. Yet whereas over the years there have been countless health warnings about the consequences of alcohol excess, there are effectively no health warnings about the consequences of the excessive use of MP3 personal music systems.

Regrettably, the Department of Health has washed its hands of the looming man-made disaster affecting the nation’s hearing. It has said that health matters resulting from the use of MP3 personal music systems are not matters for the Department of Health! Bizarrely, in a single written answer provided on 24 June last year in response to five detailed questions that I had tabled about MP3 players, one of which specifically urged the Secretary of State for Health to

“take steps to increase levels of public awareness of the potential effects on hearing of listening to personal music players at high noise levels”,

the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), said:

“The safety and regulation of consumer products, such as personal music players is, within Government, primarily a matter for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.”

So there we have it: responsibility for health-related hearing impairment caused by MP3s is not a matter for the Department of Health, but a matter for the right hon. Lord Mandelson, First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and Lord President of the Council. No doubt we must now add to his ever-lengthening title “and Minister for MP3 hearing impairment”.

The Minister of State did graciously go on to add in her written answer:

“The Department welcomes the report of the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks.”

It is good that the European Union is more concerned about this newly identified health risk than seems to be the case with Her Majesty’s Government. The Minister's written answer then went on to say:

“The Department, advised by the Health Protection Agency, keeps under review the risks to health which may be attributed to various kinds of noise.”

She concluded with this rallying cry of inertia and inactivity:

“The Department has no plans at present for an information campaign on the risks to hearing posed by the use of personal music players.”—[Official Report, 24 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 1004W.]

This was not the first time that I had raised my concerns with the Department. I had also tabled parliamentary questions, first in May 2007, and then again in May 2008. On 2 May 2007, I was told that the Department had made no estimate of the number of people using iPods who will suffer hearing impairment as a result. On 6 May 2008, the same Minister, in response to my asking the Secretary of State to commission research into the effects on hearing of the use of personal MP3 players, acknowledged in a written answer that

“It is already widely understood that playing personal audio equipment too loud can damage your hearing.”—[Official Report, 6 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 746W.]

Thus, Mr. Speaker, it was recognised two years ago, and no doubt earlier, by the Department of Health that personal musical systems were a potential health problem, but it would appear that, two years later, the Government have failed to take any meaningful action. Interestingly, on the same day, I was called at Health Questions and directly challenged the then Secretary of State. This is what I said:

“Audiologists have expressed concern about the potential hearing impairment brought about by young people wearing personal music centres plugged into their ears. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a serious likelihood of hearing impairment affecting those young people at a much earlier stage of their lives, and that there should be an inquiry into what action can be taken to prevent the danger of hearing impairment being brought about by those items of social fashion?”

In his oral response, the Secretary of State, amidst banter—the word “Interruption” appears twice in the Hansard report—said at one point:

“I do not think that this issue can be near the top of our agenda, but it does need to be looked at.”

After commenting on other matters relating to music noise, the Secretary of State then concluded with reference to MP3s by saying:

“yes, I do think that we should look into that issue.”—[Official Report, 6 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 570.]

Almost two years later, will the Minister tonight say what action the Department of Health has taken following the promise that the matter would be “looked into”? Will the Minister also advise me when—I hope this has happened—his Department published a report by an ad hoc advisory group that I was told in a written answer on 11 June 2007 had been set up to

“advise about the effects of environmental noise on health, which includes the risk to hearing from over exposure to loud noise. This group is currently producing a report on these matters, which is due to be published later this year.”?—[Official Report, 11 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 870W.]

I had asked the then Secretary of State—remember, this is approaching three years ago—what steps her Department had taken to educate people about the risk to their hearing from over-exposure to loud noise and whether she would make a statement. Almost three years on, the answer to that appears to be little to nothing. Three wasted years: three years in which the hearing of millions of British people has been put at risk because the Government failed to take action on what audiologists were aware was happening, and what the Department of Health must have known was happening, if it was paying attention to this emerging and newly identified health risk. If I knew, the Department—with all its expert advisers—must have known as well.

I was first alerted to the pending hearing doomsday scenario by two audiologists in my Colchester constituency whom I had gone to see on a totally unrelated topic: the switchover to digital hearing aids. In conversation, they said that personal music systems were already destroying the quality of hearing of many young people. I therefore hope that tonight's debate will focus attention on the serious medical time-bomb which is ticking away, very loudly, and that the Government, and those who manufacture and sell MP3 players, will take swift and effective action to make people aware that, at their current levels, in terms of both excessive usage and excessive sound, people are destroying their hearing quality for the rest of their lives. The cost to the national health service in the years to come will be substantial, and the cost to the quality of life of those with seriously impaired hearing cannot be quantified financially.

The Royal National Institute for Deaf People—the RNID— Britain’s largest charity which seeks to help the nation’s estimated 9 million people who are deaf or hard of hearing, has launched a “Don’t Lose the Music” campaign, which aims to make sure that people know how and why to protect their hearing while enjoying music. The charity does not want to see the figure of 9 million grow, but it will grow massively as a direct result of MP3 players unless firm action is taken now to deal with the seriousness of the problem. According to figures released by the World Health Organisation, exposure to loud music is the major avoidable cause of permanent hearing loss worldwide. MP3 players are exacerbating the problems on a huge scale. Experts agree that noises over 85 decibels—that is equivalent to a loud alarm clock, heavy traffic or a power drill at close range—will damage hearing over time.

The RNID has estimated that a high number of people in the UK are at risk of damaging their hearing from “leisure noise”—MP3 players pose a significant risk in that regard. Research conducted by the RNID in 2006—it is believed that the situation has deteriorated since—suggested that 90 per cent. of young people had experienced the first physical signs of hearing loss, which are dull, fuzzy hearing or temporary tinnitus, after a night out.

MP3 players must not be blamed for all of this—there are other situations where noise causes problems—but that is no excuse not to take effective action to save users of MP3 players from suffering permanent hearing impairment. Astonishingly, I am advised that the regulations dealing with noise at work do not provide protection for consumers, so that gap in the existing legislation needs to be addressed. We also need other regulations or legislation to deal with the health menace from MP3 players. I am told that it is not unusual for the noise level of MP3 music input directly into the ears to be greater than what would be legally permitted in a factory environment.

What does MP3 stand for? I thought I ought to ask, and the answer, which has kindly been provided by the RNID, is as follows:

“MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3, more commonly referred to as MP3, is a patented digital audio encoding format using a form of lossy data compression. It is a common audio format for consumer audio storage, as well as a de facto standard of digital audio compression for the transfer and playback of music on audio players.”

One can understand why it is called MP3.

I am chairman of the all-party group on noise reduction, which for many years has promoted awareness of noise issues on the advice of the UK Noise Association, and this is not the first time that I have secured a debate relating to noise. On 21 March 2002—eight years ago almost to the day—I had an Adjournment debate headed “Noisy Neighbours”. I also wish to draw the House’s attention to early-day motion 1154, which I tabled last night and which was published today. It is headed “Government Noise Policy Statement” and records regret

“that the Noise Policy Statement published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 15 March falls far short of what had been expected and what is required to tackle the increasing levels of noise in society and the range of problems associated with noise, including quality of life and health issues for the people of this country”.

There is clearly a need for a much more determined approach from the Government—a joined-up approach—to tackle noise issues. While the Department of Health has seemingly been very lax in respect of hearing impairment issues relating to MP3 players, both the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Transport have recognised specific serious matters that need to be addressed, and have addressed them. The Ministry of Defence has a defence hearing working group, whose remit is to ensure that military personnel take precautions in protecting their hearing, not just when training or deployed on active service, but in social situations. When I have been on exercises in this country or overseas—I have seen our troops serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan—I have noted the requirement to wear ear plugs and other ear protectors. The Army has produced a training video containing a section—this relates specifically to the title of tonight’s debate—on soldiers’ social lives and how MP3 players can damage their hearing. I am told that the video refers to hearing loss as being “painless, progressive and permanent”. The Army encourages soldiers to embed the culture of valuing their hearing at all times.

RoSPA—the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents—has informed me that although little hard data are available it is aware that tragedies have occurred when cyclists and pedestrians wearing MP3 players who did not hear the sound of vehicles around them have been killed or injured. The society told me:

“RoSPA’s advice is that anyone using an iPod, mobile phone or similar when out walking, jogging or cycling needs to be aware of the risk that they may be ‘in a world of their own’ and miss the vital clue of an approaching vehicle.”

A second road safety charity, Brake, told me:

“Unfortunately there are no statistics on the number of road casualties MP3s have contributed to or caused, but it is a story that we hear time and time again from our bereaved and seriously injured volunteers.”

It added:

“Distraction, or at least loss of hearing when crossing the road, can be considered a very serious issue indeed.”

I have particular interest in road safety issues as chairman of the all-party road safety group.

The Department for Transport has been concerned enough about road safety problems associated with people using MP3 players to include the issue in its “Think! Road Safety” publicity campaign. It has run television adverts aimed at teenagers to raise awareness of the risks.

Although I have strayed slightly into defence and road safety, which are clearly the preserve of other Departments, I believe that that the experiences of the Defence and Transport Departments are further evidence that the Government need to take a joined-up approach to dealing with the serious consequences of the population’s growing widespread use of MP3 players, which are clearly a health hazard in terms of hearing impairment and quality of hearing for millions of our citizens.

I suggest that the Department for Children, Schools and Families also has an important role because youngsters need to be alerted to the serious dangers to their hearing posed by extensive use of MP3 players.

There is no evidence that the industry is taking the matter seriously. I was astonished to read in yesterday’s Colchester Gazette a report headed “Behave at school and you’ll get iPods”, which said that pupils at the Clacton Coastal academy will be rewarded for good behaviour with gifts that include iPods. Those running the academy clearly need to be educated about the dangers of giving hearing-destroying prizes to their pupils.

The prevalence of personal music players is unquestionable. Apple has now sold more than 240 million iPods and it seems as though we cannot go anywhere any more without seeing people using personal music players. Personal music players are all around us and they obviously bring an enormous amount of pleasure to people. My concern is that people are listening to these players at sound levels that are damaging their hearing. There is no need just to take my word on that—it is not at all uncommon to find people on public transport listening to music on their personal music players at such a high level that it almost feels as though we are listening to the music. It seems that people are not aware that something they love could be doing serious damage to their hearing.

People losing their hearing as a result of listening to personal music players that are too loud is something that will manifest itself in the future as a major public health problem. That has enormous implications not only in health terms but—as the cost of audiology provision will increase, as will the cost of providing hearing aids and other treatment to those who have unnecessarily lost their hearing as a result of listening to personal music players that are too loud—for Britain’s economic prosperity. It is already estimated that hearing loss costs the UK economy £13 billion annually through loss of earnings.

Last September, the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks concluded a year-long investigation into whether listening to loud music on personal music players damaged people’s hearing. Its conclusion was unequivocal—listening to personal music players at high volume over a sustained period of time could lead to permanent hearing loss. As a result of that report, the European Union’s Commissioner for Consumer Affairs announced at an RNID press conference that she had mandated the European Union’s standardisation bodies to develop new technical safety standards for personal music players with respect to the risk of hearing loss. It will take some time, but the RNID expects that as a result of the action taken in Europe, within two years all MP3 players will be sold with a volume limit of 80dB—a safe level. It is important to state that this is not over-regulation and that the volume limiter is not the work of a nanny state. Users have the option of overriding the volume limit, but it is hoped that having to take that step will provide real encouragement for people to listen to their personal music players at safe levels.

The work that the European Union has done on this issue is groundbreaking, but this goes beyond regulation. People need to be better educated about the risks that are associated with listening to personal music players at loud volumes. The industry can play a significant role by providing information about how consumers can minimise the risk of damaging their hearing when using personal music players and by providing good-quality headphones with products that do not encourage users to turn up the volume to unsafe levels to drown out background noise.

This is an issue of corporate responsibility. The sea of white headphones that one sees around suggests that many people are not willing to invest in noise-isolating headphones, and instead stick with the headphones that are provided as standard with personal music players. My concern is that those standard headphones are of such low quality that they encourage users to turn the volume up to unsafe levels to hear the music they want to listen to. Poor-quality headphones are posing a real risk to the hearing of many people who use personal music players. If some of the larger companies provided noise-isolating headphones as standard they would steal a march on their competitors and take a real step forward in terms of corporate responsibility. That would make a real contribution to the hearing health of this nation and would ensure that such companies’ present customer base did not stop buying future products because they could not hear them.

People need to be aware that listening to loud music, particularly on personal music players at a loud level, poses a risk to their health, but at the moment they are not aware of that. I feel strongly that the Government should take up this issue and launch a public awareness campaign. Just as people are aware that smoking can have serious negative consequences for their health, so they should be aware that listening to personal music players at a high volume can seriously damage their hearing. I therefore invite the Minister to launch a Department of Health-co-ordinated approach across Government to deal with the negative health aspects of MP3s through an awareness campaign based on the RNID’s “Don’t Lose the Music” campaign. Following discussions with colleagues, the RNID tells me:

“The Department of Health have definitely never run an awareness raising campaign relating to hearing loss and MP3 players.”

The series of parliamentary questions from the past three years that I read out earlier tends to confirm that. It is time that the Department of Health had an awareness campaign. Let tonight mark the launch of such a campaign, so that people will not suffer from hearing problems now or in future.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on securing this important debate. I know that he, as chair of the all-party group for noise reduction, has been a strong and passionate campaigner on this issue for many years, in which time he has drawn the House’s attention to the long-term risk that personal music systems pose to hearing. From a health perspective, I share his concern. Preserving people’s hearing has been, and continues to be, an important issue for the Government.

I am pleased that our national audiology strategy has reduced waits for audiology tests to an average of two weeks, compared with 26 weeks just three years ago. It is also helping to replace traditional analogue hearing aids with new digital hearing aids as the preferred option for people with hearing problems. I mention those two examples of the transformation of recent years to show that we take this issue very seriously, and rightly so. About one in five adults in England experiences hearing loss, more than a quarter of whom are aged between 16 and 60. We must do all we can to stop preventable hearing loss and to reduce harmful exposure to noise from any source. That is certainly an area in which we can make a difference.

I know from what I see, and increasingly hear, in my own constituency that MP3 players are very widespread, as the hon. Gentleman said. They are ubiquitous. Many people, especially young people, when listening to bands such as Arcane Enigma and Now There Is Only Carnage—two bands from my constituency—have a tendency to crank up the volume to the maximum possible levels.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned his experience on the bus, when he was travelling to the House for his early start today. Anyone travelling on the London underground will recognise the annoyance when a fellow commuter plays music so loudly that the whole carriage shares a tinny rendition of Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, or whatever they are playing. As the hon. Gentleman argues, it is not only a nuisance for other travellers, but a long-term threat to the person’s hearing.

To add to the hon. Gentleman’s examples, a report by Eurosafe—the European Association for Injury Prevention and Safety Promotion—says that up to one in 10 music listeners risk permanent hearing loss if they listen to a personal music player for more than an hour a week at high volumes over a five-year period. We define high volume as more than 89 dB. Eurosafe estimates that up to 10 million consumers across Europe—a significant proportion from this country—are at risk. I think the hon. Gentleman referred to that figure, too.

Stories in the UK already suggest that more young people are ending up at audiologists suffering from tinnitus or hearing loss because of exposure to loud music. One audiologist was quoted as saying that he is seeing

“the sort of damage that in the old days would have come from industrial noise.”

The danger is that many young people could find themselves swapping their headphones for hearing aids later in life because of their listening habits.

I remind the House that sound-induced hearing damage is not just about deafness. It can cause difficulties understanding speech in noisy environments, prolonged or permanent tinnitus, and hypersensitivity to loud sounds, all of which can affect a person’s life profoundly. The initial damage caused by loud noise is often small, causing slight hearing problems that disappear after a while. It tends to be a slow, creeping process, noticed only after the damage is done.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s efforts to draw attention to the issue. It is something we should be concerned about and responsive to. That view shared is by the European Commission, which, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, issued a mandate on personal music players to the European standardisation bodies in 2009. Those bodies are in the process of developing new technical safety standards for manufacturers of MP3s.

The standards have two key requirements: first, that manufacturers set a safe default volume limit on all personal music players and, secondly, that there are adequate warnings—as the hon. Gentleman has called for—for consumers on the risks involved in listening to music at loud volumes. If I might play devil’s advocate, I spoke to a group of young people about music earlier today. One guy, Ben, said, “Look, if I want to listen to Bare Groove or Kasabian very loud, then it’s my business.” A lot of people think that way; they see any form of regulation as a constraint on their ability to choose. They have a point. To some extent, personal choice is important in this debate, and I do not think anyone in the House would want to deny that. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is also fair to say that when some music players on the market are reaching 115 dB—louder than a pneumatic drill—it ceases to be about personal freedom; it is about consumer protection.

I support the mandate that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I believe that ANEC—the European consumer group—is right to recommend a default volume limit of 89 dB, with a manual override allowing someone to increase the maximum volume to 100 dB if they so choose. It is also appropriate to consider a lower volume cap for products aimed at children. ANEC is calling for a limit of 80 dB, the level at which the risk of hearing loss becomes negligible. That seems sensible to me, and offers us the best of both worlds. It gives protection for the youngest and most vulnerable, and gives others the freedom to listen to The Who, The Jam or whatever at a higher volume if they choose, but with clear warnings in place if they manually override the default setting.

Although responsibility for regulation sits with the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills—a point the hon. Gentleman made—we support the new standards and will work with the European Commission on them. I also understand from the Commission that manufacturers are showing real willingness to work with the Commission to ensure that their products are safe, and I welcome that responsible attitude.

As the hon. Gentleman suggests, regulation is only one lever for change. The risk of hearing damage depends not just on how loud the noise is, but how long people listen for. Even at 89 dB, prolonged exposure can cause harm, so I agree that educating people and encouraging them to set their music at safe levels continues to be important, not least because it will be some time before the European mandate comes into full effect.

I recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the importance of being proactive. He is right to say that we do not believe a Government awareness campaign is appropriate at this stage, but I am keen that we should work with charities such as the RNID and manufacturers to inform people better of the dangers. I am pleased to be able to tell him that I will now ask the officials at the Department to talk to the RNID see if we can work with them on future public awareness work.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the online campaign, “Don’t Lose the Music”, which gives people simple advice, such as taking a five-minute break from their MP3 players every hour, or not turning the volume up to drown out noise when they are on the tube. I want to see if we can help the campaign to build on this, as I recognise that too many people do not realise that listening to The Killers or to Dillinja and the valve sound—I have not listened to those myself, but I understand that they are particularly loud—at high volumes can damage their health. There is a big education challenge to meet, but I think we are best served if we can get charities and manufacturers working together, with our support, on better information and advice for consumers.

We are a nation of music lovers. I confess that I am a fan of Elvis Costello, Nils Lofgren and Lou Reed, so I do not want to do anything to dent my or other people’s enjoyment of the excellent music that this country has produced for many years. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important that people listen to music players safely and without unwittingly—the point that he is making—damaging their hearing. We do not want the fantastic innovation of MP3 players to be spoiled by stories of young people experiencing hearing loss because they are listening to Royworld or Bachman-Turner Overdrive at ear-splitting volumes.

The European mandate is a helpful starting point for protecting the consumer without infringing people’s rights. The Government support the mandate. We welcome the way in which manufacturers have responded so far, and we will work with them and the European Commission to protect our ears. We will work with the RNID and others to introduce public awareness campaigns to ensure that we can all continue to enjoy our music in the years ahead.

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May I place on record my appreciation of the Minister’s positive response? We have got more out of the debate tonight than I was hoping for, and I am sure that a big step forward has been taken. I sincerely thank him for the positive response.

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I am glad, and I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman sees that the Government are serious. I know that there is more to do. We can work across Government more effectively. I will take away tonight the pledge to work with him and with colleagues in the voluntary sector and others to make sure that we can make a real difference on the issue.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.