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Power Station (Blythe Park)

8.59 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): The second petition that I have the honour to present relates to the proposal for a gas-fired power station at Blythe Park in my constituency. The petition has well over 1,000 names and is a substantial and controversial issue in my constituency.

The petition, the wording of which I strongly support, states:


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Personal Hearing Systems

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(Mary Creagh.)

9.1 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): We all know about the curse of binge drinking, and we all know that when alcohol is taken to excess it causes lasting damage to a person's health. What is not so well known-indeed, it seems to be something of a state secret-is the curse of "binge listening" to personal music systems, collectively known as MP3s. MP3s are an invention from the last decade of the 20th century that has taken serious hold in the first decade of the third millennium.

Every day millions of people plug into MP3s, individual music systems that pump music, often very loud music, straight into the ears of users who are oblivious to the fact that they are destroying their hearing. The figures are staggering. It is estimated that 10 million people in the United Kingdom, and more than 100 million in the European Union, have MP3 systems, which are often generically-but wrongly-described as iPods. On the 453 "bendy bus" travelling to the House of Commons from the Old Kent road at 6.15 this morning, I counted six passengers of the 18 in the section in which I was travelling who were plugged into MP3s.

It can be said, in blunt terms, that a contemporary 20-year-old serial user of an MP3 will, at the age of 40, have the hearing capacity of someone aged 60. That is the prediction of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. The RNID, as it is more generally called nowadays, very kindly helped me with the background for my speech. Yet whereas over the years there have been countless health warnings about the consequences of alcohol excess, there are effectively no health warnings about the consequences of the excessive use of MP3 personal music systems.

Regrettably, the Department of Health has washed its hands of the looming man-made disaster affecting the nation's hearing. It has said that health matters resulting from the use of MP3 personal music systems are not matters for the Department of Health! Bizarrely, in a single written answer provided on 24 June last year in response to five detailed questions that I had tabled about MP3 players, one of which specifically urged the Secretary of State for Health to

the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), said:

So there we have it: responsibility for health-related hearing impairment caused by MP3s is not a matter for the Department of Health, but a matter for the right hon. Lord Mandelson, First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and Lord President of the Council. No doubt we must now add to his ever-lengthening title "and Minister for MP3 hearing impairment".

The Minister of State did graciously go on to add in her written answer:

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It is good that the European Union is more concerned about this newly identified health risk than seems to be the case with Her Majesty's Government. The Minister's written answer then went on to say:

She concluded with this rallying cry of inertia and inactivity:

This was not the first time that I had raised my concerns with the Department. I had also tabled parliamentary questions, first in May 2007, and then again in May 2008. On 2 May 2007, I was told that the Department had made no estimate of the number of people using iPods who will suffer hearing impairment as a result. On 6 May 2008, the same Minister, in response to my asking the Secretary of State to commission research into the effects on hearing of the use of personal MP3 players, acknowledged in a written answer that

Thus, Mr. Speaker, it was recognised two years ago, and no doubt earlier, by the Department of Health that personal musical systems were a potential health problem, but it would appear that, two years later, the Government have failed to take any meaningful action. Interestingly, on the same day, I was called at Health Questions and directly challenged the then Secretary of State. This is what I said:

In his oral response, the Secretary of State, amidst banter-the word "Interruption" appears twice in the Hansard report-said at one point:

After commenting on other matters relating to music noise, the Secretary of State then concluded with reference to MP3s by saying:

Almost two years later, will the Minister tonight say what action the Department of Health has taken following the promise that the matter would be "looked into"? Will the Minister also advise me when-I hope this has happened-his Department published a report by an ad hoc advisory group that I was told in a written answer on 11 June 2007 had been set up to

I had asked the then Secretary of State-remember, this is approaching three years ago-what steps her Department had taken to educate people about the risk to their
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hearing from over-exposure to loud noise and whether she would make a statement. Almost three years on, the answer to that appears to be little to nothing. Three wasted years: three years in which the hearing of millions of British people has been put at risk because the Government failed to take action on what audiologists were aware was happening, and what the Department of Health must have known was happening, if it was paying attention to this emerging and newly identified health risk. If I knew, the Department-with all its expert advisers-must have known as well.

I was first alerted to the pending hearing doomsday scenario by two audiologists in my Colchester constituency whom I had gone to see on a totally unrelated topic: the switchover to digital hearing aids. In conversation, they said that personal music systems were already destroying the quality of hearing of many young people. I therefore hope that tonight's debate will focus attention on the serious medical time-bomb which is ticking away, very loudly, and that the Government, and those who manufacture and sell MP3 players, will take swift and effective action to make people aware that, at their current levels, in terms of both excessive usage and excessive sound, people are destroying their hearing quality for the rest of their lives. The cost to the national health service in the years to come will be substantial, and the cost to the quality of life of those with seriously impaired hearing cannot be quantified financially.

The Royal National Institute for Deaf People-the RNID- Britain's largest charity which seeks to help the nation's estimated 9 million people who are deaf or hard of hearing, has launched a "Don't Lose the Music" campaign, which aims to make sure that people know how and why to protect their hearing while enjoying music. The charity does not want to see the figure of 9 million grow, but it will grow massively as a direct result of MP3 players unless firm action is taken now to deal with the seriousness of the problem. According to figures released by the World Health Organisation, exposure to loud music is the major avoidable cause of permanent hearing loss worldwide. MP3 players are exacerbating the problems on a huge scale. Experts agree that noises over 85 decibels-that is equivalent to a loud alarm clock, heavy traffic or a power drill at close range-will damage hearing over time.

The RNID has estimated that a high number of people in the UK are at risk of damaging their hearing from "leisure noise"-MP3 players pose a significant risk in that regard. Research conducted by the RNID in 2006-it is believed that the situation has deteriorated since-suggested that 90 per cent. of young people had experienced the first physical signs of hearing loss, which are dull, fuzzy hearing or temporary tinnitus, after a night out.

MP3 players must not be blamed for all of this-there are other situations where noise causes problems-but that is no excuse not to take effective action to save users of MP3 players from suffering permanent hearing impairment. Astonishingly, I am advised that the regulations dealing with noise at work do not provide protection for consumers, so that gap in the existing legislation needs to be addressed. We also need other regulations or legislation to deal with the health menace from MP3 players. I am told that it is not unusual for the noise
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level of MP3 music input directly into the ears to be greater than what would be legally permitted in a factory environment.

What does MP3 stand for? I thought I ought to ask, and the answer, which has kindly been provided by the RNID, is as follows:

One can understand why it is called MP3.

I am chairman of the all-party group on noise reduction, which for many years has promoted awareness of noise issues on the advice of the UK Noise Association, and this is not the first time that I have secured a debate relating to noise. On 21 March 2002-eight years ago almost to the day-I had an Adjournment debate headed "Noisy Neighbours". I also wish to draw the House's attention to early-day motion 1154, which I tabled last night and which was published today. It is headed "Government Noise Policy Statement" and records regret

There is clearly a need for a much more determined approach from the Government-a joined-up approach-to tackle noise issues. While the Department of Health has seemingly been very lax in respect of hearing impairment issues relating to MP3 players, both the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Transport have recognised specific serious matters that need to be addressed, and have addressed them. The Ministry of Defence has a defence hearing working group, whose remit is to ensure that military personnel take precautions in protecting their hearing, not just when training or deployed on active service, but in social situations. When I have been on exercises in this country or overseas-I have seen our troops serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan-I have noted the requirement to wear ear plugs and other ear protectors. The Army has produced a training video containing a section-this relates specifically to the title of tonight's debate-on soldiers' social lives and how MP3 players can damage their hearing. I am told that the video refers to hearing loss as being "painless, progressive and permanent". The Army encourages soldiers to embed the culture of valuing their hearing at all times.

RoSPA-the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents-has informed me that although little hard data are available it is aware that tragedies have occurred when cyclists and pedestrians wearing MP3 players who did not hear the sound of vehicles around them have been killed or injured. The society told me:

A second road safety charity, Brake, told me:

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It added:

I have particular interest in road safety issues as chairman of the all-party road safety group.

The Department for Transport has been concerned enough about road safety problems associated with people using MP3 players to include the issue in its "Think! Road Safety" publicity campaign. It has run television adverts aimed at teenagers to raise awareness of the risks.

Although I have strayed slightly into defence and road safety, which are clearly the preserve of other Departments, I believe that that the experiences of the Defence and Transport Departments are further evidence that the Government need to take a joined-up approach to dealing with the serious consequences of the population's growing widespread use of MP3 players, which are clearly a health hazard in terms of hearing impairment and quality of hearing for millions of our citizens.

I suggest that the Department for Children, Schools and Families also has an important role because youngsters need to be alerted to the serious dangers to their hearing posed by extensive use of MP3 players.

There is no evidence that the industry is taking the matter seriously. I was astonished to read in yesterday's Colchester Gazette a report headed "Behave at school and you'll get iPods", which said that pupils at the Clacton Coastal academy will be rewarded for good behaviour with gifts that include iPods. Those running the academy clearly need to be educated about the dangers of giving hearing-destroying prizes to their pupils.

The prevalence of personal music players is unquestionable. Apple has now sold more than 240 million iPods and it seems as though we cannot go anywhere any more without seeing people using personal music players. Personal music players are all around us and they obviously bring an enormous amount of pleasure to people. My concern is that people are listening to these players at sound levels that are damaging their hearing. There is no need just to take my word on that-it is not at all uncommon to find people on public transport listening to music on their personal music players at such a high level that it almost feels as though we are listening to the music. It seems that people are not aware that something they love could be doing serious damage to their hearing.

People losing their hearing as a result of listening to personal music players that are too loud is something that will manifest itself in the future as a major public health problem. That has enormous implications not only in health terms but-as the cost of audiology provision will increase, as will the cost of providing hearing aids and other treatment to those who have unnecessarily lost their hearing as a result of listening to personal music players that are too loud-for Britain's economic prosperity. It is already estimated that hearing loss costs the UK economy £13 billion annually through loss of earnings.

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