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Experts caution against overexposure to loud toys

Whether listening to music with earbuds or over-ear headphones, experts say to limit exposure to 60 percent of maximum volume for no more than an hour at a time. (Forum News Service photo)

By Michael Brun


RED WING, Minn. -- The holidays can be a noisy time as children pop in the batteries to their new toys and turn them on.

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But more than an occasional annoyance, sound effects on some electronic games and devices can be loud enough to cause hearing damage, health experts warn.  

The Minnesota-based Sight & Hearing Association released its annual Noisy Toys List last month, giving parents and gift givers an idea of just how loud some toys can get.

Of the 18 toys tested this year, seven featured sounds that went above 100 decibels, which can damage hearing in as little as 15 minutes, according to the SHA.

The top noise offender for 2013 is Baby Einstein Take Along Tunes, a handheld device that plays a selection of classical music. The sound it produces can reach 114.8 decibels if held directly to the ear, the equivalent of “rock concert levels,” according to the SHA.

The toys were selected by SHA staff who combed store aisles for products that appeared to be too loud. They then were brought back to the association’s office and tested with a digital sound-level meter placed against their speakers and at 10 inches away.

The American Society for Testing and Materials, an international product standards and consumer safety group, set the safe noise level for toys at no more than 85 decibels recorded from 50 centimeters (19.7 inches) away. Each product on the list passed required industry standards, but the SHA says young children tend to play with toys much closer than the distance at which the ASTM tests.

Along with distance from the ear, the amount of exposure also is an important factor for hearing damage, said Dr. Airika Gibbs, an audiologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing.

At 85 decibels, noise is safe for up to eight hours before damage occurs, she explained, but that time is cut in half for every 3-decibel increase.

A child exposed to a 100-decibel toy for longer than 15 minutes won’t experience immediate hearing changes, but noise-induced hearing loss is cumulative, Gibbs added.

Over time, exposure to loud noises can make it difficult to understand speech, lead to persistent ringing or buzzing known as tinnitus and reduce sound tolerance.

“It really has long-term effects,” Gibbs said, especially for children who play with loud toys for years and then move on to loud electronics like video games and music players.

“And now we see teenagers who have the hearing of a 60-year-old man who has worked in a factory for 40 years,” she said.

Gibbs said parents should test toys before purchasing them and to make sure they have volume controls.

If a toy sounds too loud, she said placing a piece of clear packing tape over its speaker can reduce the volume. Or, if all else fails, simply take the batteries out.

When it comes to iPods and other media players with headphones, Gibbs said the rule of thumb is to keep exposure to no more than an hour when listening at 60 percent of the device’s maximum volume.

There is little difference when it comes to the safety of different headphone designs, Gibbs said, but studies show children tend to listen to music more quietly when using noise-canceling headphones.

She also said she recommends headphones with built-in volume limits as an added layer of protection.  

“The big thing about (noise-induced hearing loss) is that it is completely preventable,” Gibbs said. “Absolutely, 100 percent preventable.”

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