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Ear today, gone tomorrow

Pratyush Singh is cocooned in a ball of silence these days. Till recently, fun for the 26-year-old trained modern dancer meant a night at the discotheque. He has had to quit dancing, and Singh can’t listen to his iPod or MP3 either. He can’t even use his cell phone. His ears have given him notice.

Excessive use of cell phones, coupled with the music that he has been listening to over the years, has led to a mild hearing loss in his right ear. “Singh can turn deaf gradually if he doesn’t stop using cell phones or listening to personalised music gadgets now,” says Dr J.M. Hans, who heads the ear nose and throat (ENT) department at Delhi’s Primus Super Speciality Hospital.

Singh, of course, is shattered. “The problem has reached such an extent that I find it impossible to sit in the newsroom for more than 10 minutes at a stretch,” says Singh, who works in a news production house.

He, however, is not the only one with a hearing problem caused by excessive use of gadgets. Dr Hans stresses that he has been treating more and more young people with such problems. “Out of 250 patients I see every month, at least 18 per cent suffer from hearing loss caused by the use of cell phones for long hours,” he says. The ones who are most affected by this, Dr Hans adds, are between 18 and 25 years of age.

Good hearing depends on the health of some 16,000 hair cells present in each inner ear. But increasingly, doctors have been treating people whose hair cells have been damaged by the high radio frequency electromagnetic radiation (RFR) emitted from cell phones. Hearing problems occur because these cells do not regenerate.

Anyone who spends two to three hours on the cell phone every day runs the risk of partial deafness over three to five years, warns Dr Rajesh Vishwakarma of Ahmedabad’s BJ Medical College and Civil Hospital, who has also been treating many young people with hearing problems. “At least 10 people are detected with hearing loss in a month,” he says. Most are marketing and tele-consulting professionals in their 20s, and whose jobs demand long conversations on cell phones, he says.

A recent World Health Organization (WHO) study conducted in urban and rural parts of the National Capital Region reveals that 30 per cent of the 10,000 people it screened had developed some kind of a hearing loss. Almost all of them were young and living in the city amid a whirlpool of noise.

The problem, specialists say, starts with a pain in the ear that gradually develops into tinnitus or a ringing sensation which finally leads to hearing loss. “Being continuously on a cell phone for 15 minutes can cause a warm sensation or pain in the ear and later to tinnitus. People using multifunctional big screen phones are more prone to this as the RFR emitted out of them is stronger than from simple handsets,” cautions surgeon K.R. Meghnath of the Vasavi ENT Hospital in Hyderabad.

Megha Jaisal knows about the problems that a cell phone can pose to the ears. A freelancer from Mumbai, she had a high-end phone — on which she had been holding long conversations daily for four years. Now Jaisal has been asked by her doctor not to speak on the phone. “I developed heat rashes in my inner ear a couple of months ago. I thought that it was caused by the summer heat. Later, I was told by my doctor that strong radiation emitted by my cell phone had led to the burn,” says Jaisal.

A recent study by the Chandigarh-based Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research seconds the view that the heavy use of cell phones for more than three years can damage the ears. Dr Naresh Panda, the scientist who led the research team, says that a phone’s efficacy depends on its Specific Absorption Rate (SAR). But if the SAR is high, so is the radiation emitted by the phone. “People should use phones with lower SARs to avoid health hazards,” Dr Panda says.

But cellular operators are sceptical of these findings. “During a voice call, the average power output of a phone varies from 0.002 watt to 0.1 watt. Hence the radio wave exposure levels from mobile phones are far less than 2 watts — which has been prescribed by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection or ICNIRP,” says T.R. Dua, deputy director general, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI).

“Moreover, the RFR emissions by base stations or mobile phones are some 50,000 times lower than the levels at which the first health effects begin to be established,” he says.

But doctors stress that cell phones are just one of the modern lifestyle gadgets that the young use over long periods. Portable music players such as iPods and MP3 can also affect the ears. “Excessive use of an iPod can also cause damage to the ear,” says Dr Hetal Marfatia Patel, professor, ENT, Nair Municipal Hospital, Mumbai. One of the problems with music gadgets, experts say, is the type of earphones that are commonly used. “Earphones that are sound-proof and can filter the surrounding noise, which help you hear the music clearly at a low volume, are better than the cheaper varieties,” says Dr Patel.

Doctors believe that earphones used by most iPod listeners that fit snugly into the ear are more dangerous than the older muff type earphones.

Audiologists say that earphones can boost sound levels from six to nine decibels. A rise of 10 decibels will produce a sound level that is 10 times more intense than what one would hear without earphones.

The permissible decibel levels are 60-80, but when the volume is turned up high, the levels from iPods are about 100-115 decibels — which can damage the ears of someone who is exposed to the sound for more than 28 seconds every day over a period of time, says Calcutta-based ENT specialist Santanu Banerjee.

“Noise related hearing damage occurs because the sound vibrations damage the nerve endings in the inner ear,” explains Dr Banerjee. “When enough hair cells are damaged and killed, hearing decreases. There is no way to restore life to a dead nerve ending; the damage is permanent.”

But doctors also say that all is not lost yet. With some simple measures, the young can go on listening to their music — or chatting on the phone. “One should stop listening to mobile music gadgets at higher levels for long hours. For longer conversations on the cell phone, one should put the phone on the loudspeaker mode because the risk is reduced when the instrument is held away from the ear,” says Dr Panda.

So is the Gen-Y listening to the advice? Or will it happily turn a deaf ear to it?

(Names of patients have been changed on request)

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