EU to set volume limits on music players

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The European Commission has proposed new volume standards for personal music players, such as Apple’s iPods, to tackle the risk of permanent hearing damage as a result of their regular use.

The proposal put forward by the Commission yesterday (28 September) involves establishing default volume settings for new music players. Users will be left free to change the original settings, but upon doing so will be warned of the possible consequences for their hearing.

Currently, the only measure warning against playing music players at full volume is a statement contained in the manual of each device, which the EU executive fears users rarely read.

“These standards make small technical changes to players so that by default, normal use is safe. If consumers chose to override the default settings they can, but there will be clear warnings so they know the risks they are taking,” explained EU Consumer Commissioner Meglena Kuneva in a statement.

The new safety standards will be developed by one of the European standardisation bodies (CENELEC). The procedure should take up to two years.

The industry approved the legal procedure chosen by the Commission to safeguard consumers while taking into account the needs of the manufacturers. 

Once officially approved, the standards will remain voluntary, although companies that decide not to apply them will have to test their products in a process which is likely to result in prohibitive costs.

Brussels also left the industry free to apply different types of warning, such as labelling the device or displaying information on screen, to warn users against changing the default settings.

“The mandate [to CENELEC] does not prescribe specific technical solutions in order not to stifle the capacity of industry to innovate,” argued the Commission.

Digitaleurope, the lobby representing the interests of the high-tech industry in the EU, welcomed the “industry-led and science-driven process for standards development,” read a statement.

However, the industry also made clear that potential hearing damage for consumers is only partially a result of the high volume at which portable music devices are played. “These risks are much smaller than pop concerts and discotheques,” Digitaleurope insisted.

Welcoming the Commission’s proposal, UK Conservative MEP Malcolm Harbour, who chairs the European Parliament’s consumer protection committee, commented: “This initiative is not only beneficial to our ears but hopefully it will reduce the number of times we have to listen to the din of someone else’s personal stereo on the bus or the Tube.”

Last October, the EU's Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) warned that "listening to personal music players at a high volume over a sustained period can lead to permanent hearing damage" (EURACTIV 15/10/08).

According to figures provided by the European Commission, up to 5-10% of users are at risk. The Commission estimates that roughly 50 to 100 million people in the EU "may be listening to portable music players on a daily basis".

Up to 250 million portable music players have been sold in Europe in the last four years, according to EU data.

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