Commission urged to raise iPod safety standards

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Consumer groups have asked the Commission to “revise existing safety standards” to protect users of personal music players (PMPs), such as Apple’s iPod, from the risk of hearing damage.

Speaking at a stakeholder conference yesterday (27 January), EU Consumer Affairs Commissioner Meglena Kuneva did not rule out imposing stricter regulation on personal music players. 

“European safety standards already exist, restricting the noise level of personal music players to 100 decibels,” Kuneva said. However, she admitted that they “cover only some music players” and that there is “increasing concern over hearing damage from excessive exposure to such sources”. 

According to Kuneva, the issue now is whether to introduce a new sound level threshold or develop a new standard which better covers all personal music players. 

Consumer organisations pushed for a "more coherent regulatory approach" to protecting PMP users from the risk of hearing damage. 

ANEC, the European Association for the Co-ordination of Consumer Representation in Standardisation, said new standards were needed to "provide consumers with certainty and confidence in the safety of sound pressure limits of music players and similar devices". 

"We need a coherent set of European standards that allow innovation and consumer protection," said ANEC Director Stephen Russell. In particular, he called for a "framework of market surveillance of the EU" and insists that it should "not be left to member states to resource market surveillance under subsidiarity". 

Mobile phone manufacturer Nokia, however, claimed that enough regulation was in place to meet the safety standards of PMPs. The company pointed out that PMPs already "fell within the scope of the Radio and Telecommunications Equipment Directive". 

Mark Bogers, a Commission official, also argued that new safety legislation would be "disproportionate", saying that current EU product safety legislation "should take into account the risks of hearing damage that PMP users face. The real question is whether the concrete concerns about exposure to high levels should be translated into technical requirements and measures focused on correct use," he stated. 


Towards safety warning labels?
 

Consumer organisations also pushed for label hearing safety warnings to be added to PMPs. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNIDP) insisted that "on-pack warning labels" were needed to inform consumers about the risk of hearing damage. 

ANEC also said that warning labels were necessary, but insisted that they "should not be used as an alternative to placing safe products on the market". 

Nokia, however, argued that warning labels are not effective enough and claimed that with the technologies currently available, "we should have more innovative and effective ways to communicate" to consumers. 

RNIDP Director Emma Harrison said "noise is the biggest preventable cause of hearing loss" and "we need to encourage people to value their hearing". Thus she claimed that PMPs should have "on-pack-warning labels" and that "clear and prominent warnings within guides should be referenced to sources of more information". 

Nokia spokesperson Pekka Heikkinen believes that a "one-solution-for-all approach may not be the right way forward" and that rather than labelling PMPs, there should be "more innovative and effective ways of communicating hearing safety information to consumers". 

Up to 250 million portable audio devices were sold in the EU in the last four years alone, and up to 100 million people may have been using them on a daily basis. Many of these people are children and adolescents who do not yet intuitively understand the danger and this is why their parents shall also be made aware. 

In October 2008, the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) published a report stating that "listening to personal music players (PMP) at a high volume over a sustained period can lead to permanent hearing damage" (EURACTIV 15/10/08). 

The SCENIHR warned that 5-10% of PMP listeners are "at risk of developing permanent hearing loss after five years or more years of exposure" if they listen to PMPs for more than an hour per day each week, at high volume settings, for at least five years. 

The risks include consumers experiencing a temporary or permanent "hearing threshold shift" or "suffering from "tinnitus" (a ringing in the ears). 

In view of the report, a stakeholder conference was held on 27 January 2009 to discuss the merits of further regulation, hearing safety warning labels and information campaigns to protect consumers against the risk of permanent hearing damage. 

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