A teen in a car rocking to the pulsating bass sounds of a car stereo pulls up next to you at a stop light.
The sound is almost deafening to you, with your car windows up and air conditioning blowing. What's it doing to the teen's ears?
A report this week says greater numbers of teens are suffering higher levels of hearing loss, due in large part to blaring music — blasting sounds in their cars, ever-increasing volume on their iPods and MP3 players, and pounding sounds of home audio systems.
According to the report, one in five youths ages 12 to 19 (an estimated 6.5 million) have lost as much as 19.5 percent of their hearing.
Big Mama always said, "turn down the volume or you're going to go deaf."
Well, in reality what is lost even more so than volume is the ability to distinguish sounds — an important factor for youth preparing to return to school next week.
I had a chat with St. Petersburg audiologist Dr. Susan Terry about the impact the loud sounds are having on youth and what consumers might do to keep their ears from ringing.
Terry notes that when noise-induced hearing loss occurs, it begins with the higher frequencies. The damage first harms a person's ability to hear the sounds of the letters "f" "s" and "th".
"What you're losing is clarity and comprehension," Terry said.
So with that kind of damage to the ears, moving to the front row of the classroom might not help a student who can't understand what the teacher is saying.
For example, the plural form of a word might be missed.
So what are acceptable volume levels?
At 85 decibels, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires an industry to have a hearing conservation plan to protect workers' ears.
A single loud blast can cause hearing damage, but the biggest problem comes from constant sounds at high decibel levels, such as listening to music from an MP3 player or stereo for hours.
"The ears were never designed to listen to music seven, eight, nine hours a day," Terry said. "If you go back 200 or 300 years, think about how quiet it was."
Terry put me in a sound booth so I could better understand volume levels. She spoke first in a conversational voice, which registered at 60 decibels.
She raised the volume to 90 decibels, and I understood why OSHA says keep the sound below 85. At 90 decibels, it was uncomfortable.
But the change during our experiment jumped quickly, which made the levels easily distinguishable, as opposed to the slow increase teenagers might apply to the volume controls that might lull them into thinking the loud sound was still okay.
Then she performed an unscientific test to make a point. She took her iPod and turned the volume to its peak with the headphones on a decibel meter.
The uncontrolled sound reached 92 decibels.
"Imagine what it would be in your ears," Terry said.
I figured upper 90s or maybe even over 100 decibels. That's like a lawn mower or a motorcycle blaring in both ears — not good.
What about rock concerts that leave your ears ringing? Terry says the ringing is temporary and the ear will return to normal. But if a person constantly listens to loud rock concerts, there's going to be long-term damage.
So here's the Edge:
• Keep the MP3 player volume at 50 percent. Terry says, "you should be able to carry on a conversation with the person next to you with your MP3 player in your ear."
• Avoid music players while cutting the grass. In order to hear music above the roaring sounds of the lawn mower, a music player's volume would have to exceed safe levels for your ears. The prolonged sound of the music could cause significant damage to your ears.
• Consider headphones that limit volume to safe hearing levels. Okay, people hate restrictions, but remember when your hearing is gone, it's gone. Earphones that can limit volume run about $20, Terry says.
Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.