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Published January 18, 2012, 11:30 PM

Mathison: Make a sound decision and protect your hearing

Walking through the grocery store the other day, I couldn’t help but hear it. “Boom, boom, pow” – the words of the Black Eyed Peas song were clear enough to sing along. The sounds emanated from a cool looking high-school guy in a black leather jacket.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices blogger, INFORUM

Walking through the grocery store the other day, I couldn’t help but hear it. “Boom, boom, pow” – the words of the Black Eyed Peas song were clear enough to sing along.

But it wasn’t coming over the speakers. The sounds emanated from a cool looking high-school guy in a black leather jacket – a modern day James Dean.

With his iPod in hand, and ear buds in place, he cruised through the aisle, music loud enough to hear 15 feet away. The sad thing is I see this repeatedly, and sometimes these cool kids are as young as 5 or 6, jamming to their flavor of music.

We are teaching our kids to eat well, wear sunscreen, brush their teeth, keep clean, but are we teaching them to protect their hearing?

It is a sense we cannot replace. Once hearing is gone, it is gone for good. We use hearing aids to help amplify, but it is not a perfect system.

A 2010 statistic indicated that 20 percent of children aged 12-19 already have permanent hearing loss due to noise exposure.

In school, children are encouraged to join band and orchestra. But they are not supplied with the proper hearing protection for these situations. It’s almost like forgetting your helmet for football practice.

In some classes, children are using computers and iPods to enhance the lessons in the classroom. However, teachers may not be able to monitor the sound outputs of these devices – devices capable of reaching up to 120 decibels, which is equivalent to a blast from a shotgun and could result in significant damage to the ears.

Educational costs are mind-blowing for children with hearing loss. According to Dr. Megan Bolda, audiologist at Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo, for one child with hearing loss, an average educational assistance program over the span of school years would include:

<•> At least 30 hearing evaluations by the school audiologist.

New hearing aids every three years (usually handled by parents, aids are anywhere from $2,000-$5,000 per ear every three to five years).

<•> An FM system or sound field system, one every one to three years, plus repair costs and teacher in-service and training, estimated between $15,000 and $30,000 across 12 years.

<•> Sessions with speech pathology and special education staff.

<•> Accommodations in the classroom and teacher in-service on any equipment used to help the child hear.

<•> Decreased grades due to inability to hear, resulting in increased resources.

<•> Anywhere between 25-50 percent of children with hearing loss will be held back a grade at least once.

It’s a huge cost to the child, the family and the community. Of course, some hearing loss is congenital or related to ear infections. But noise-related hearing loss is under our control and preventable.

We’ve talked about the students, now let’s talk teachers. Music teachers have a built-in occupational hazard. They are exposed all day, every day to dangerous levels of sound. We may have walked past a school band room and wondered how they can tolerate the music being that loud.

For these teachers, hearing loss interfering with their ability to hear music can lead to loss of their vocation. They cannot teach kids and give feedback when they can’t hear the notes being played. Environments and life change when hearing changes.

We’ve all been to a concert or sports arena and left with our ears ringing and decreased hearing. It can actually be painful, and feels like you are in a pressurized tunnel – remember that awful feeling?

The symptoms are usually temporary. However, the damage is permanent. Over time, with repeated exposure, that ringing and decreased hearing becomes permanent. Imagine walking around all day and trying to sleep at night while hearing a shrill, high-pitched whine – all the while, missing out on important life sounds.

When we look at solutions, we first look at prevention.

For example, custom ear molds for music teachers are about $180-$200 per pair and are long lasting. They are made of silicone or vinyl, and maintain the fidelity of the music but filter it at a much softer level. Music teachers can model good hearing health for their students. This will diminish the hazardous situations that our teachers face every day, allowing them to be more confident and comfortable teaching music for a longer career.

Sound limiting earbuds are $30 a pair and will last 5 or more years. These limit sound output at 85 decibels, no matter what the input is. That level is considered the “safe zone” for protecting hearing.

My 4-year-old son, Grant, is starting to tune in to music thanks to Kids Bop CDs. He is also starting to tune in with the world and its marketing messages. He found an old calculator, and slipped it into his front pocket, leaned back and said “Mommy, this is my iPhone.” I found this hilarious, especially since neither of his parents own an iPhone.

I see the future before me, my little man down-loading tunes to his iPhone or iPod, and he will be wearing bright blue safety ear buds to listen to his music. He will also be wearing them at our farm, as he loves to ride with daddy on the tractor.

Hearing loss from noise exposure is preventable. We cannot change genetics, but we can prevent noise from being a factor in hearing loss. Kids can be cool and still have their music.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com.