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Last September, the European Union's Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks concluded a year-long investigation into whether listening to loud music on personal music players damaged
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people's hearing. Its conclusion was unequivocal-listening to personal music players at high volume over a sustained period of time could lead to permanent hearing loss. As a result of that report, the European Union's Commissioner for Consumer Affairs announced at an RNID press conference that she had mandated the European Union's standardisation bodies to develop new technical safety standards for personal music players with respect to the risk of hearing loss. It will take some time, but the RNID expects that as a result of the action taken in Europe, within two years all MP3 players will be sold with a volume limit of 80dB-a safe level. It is important to state that this is not over-regulation and that the volume limiter is not the work of a nanny state. Users have the option of overriding the volume limit, but it is hoped that having to take that step will provide real encouragement for people to listen to their personal music players at safe levels.

The work that the European Union has done on this issue is groundbreaking, but this goes beyond regulation. People need to be better educated about the risks that are associated with listening to personal music players at loud volumes. The industry can play a significant role by providing information about how consumers can minimise the risk of damaging their hearing when using personal music players and by providing good-quality headphones with products that do not encourage users to turn up the volume to unsafe levels to drown out background noise.

This is an issue of corporate responsibility. The sea of white headphones that one sees around suggests that many people are not willing to invest in noise-isolating headphones, and instead stick with the headphones that are provided as standard with personal music players. My concern is that those standard headphones are of such low quality that they encourage users to turn the volume up to unsafe levels to hear the music they want to listen to. Poor-quality headphones are posing a real risk to the hearing of many people who use personal music players. If some of the larger companies provided noise-isolating headphones as standard they would steal a march on their competitors and take a real step forward in terms of corporate responsibility. That would make a real contribution to the hearing health of this nation and would ensure that such companies' present customer base did not stop buying future products because they could not hear them.

People need to be aware that listening to loud music, particularly on personal music players at a loud level, poses a risk to their health, but at the moment they are not aware of that. I feel strongly that the Government should take up this issue and launch a public awareness campaign. Just as people are aware that smoking can have serious negative consequences for their health, so they should be aware that listening to personal music players at a high volume can seriously damage their hearing. I therefore invite the Minister to launch a Department of Health-co-ordinated approach across Government to deal with the negative health aspects of MP3s through an awareness campaign based on the RNID's "Don't Lose the Music" campaign. Following discussions with colleagues, the RNID tells me:

The series of parliamentary questions from the past three years that I read out earlier tends to confirm that.
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It is time that the Department of Health had an awareness campaign. Let tonight mark the launch of such a campaign, so that people will not suffer from hearing problems now or in future.

9.23 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Phil Hope): I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on securing this important debate. I know that he, as chair of the all-party group for noise reduction, has been a strong and passionate campaigner on this issue for many years, in which time he has drawn the House's attention to the long-term risk that personal music systems pose to hearing. From a health perspective, I share his concern. Preserving people's hearing has been, and continues to be, an important issue for the Government.

I am pleased that our national audiology strategy has reduced waits for audiology tests to an average of two weeks, compared with 26 weeks just three years ago. It is also helping to replace traditional analogue hearing aids with new digital hearing aids as the preferred option for people with hearing problems. I mention those two examples of the transformation of recent years to show that we take this issue very seriously, and rightly so. About one in five adults in England experiences hearing loss, more than a quarter of whom are aged between 16 and 60. We must do all we can to stop preventable hearing loss and to reduce harmful exposure to noise from any source. That is certainly an area in which we can make a difference.

I know from what I see, and increasingly hear, in my own constituency that MP3 players are very widespread, as the hon. Gentleman said. They are ubiquitous. Many people, especially young people, when listening to bands such as Arcane Enigma and Now There Is Only Carnage-two bands from my constituency-have a tendency to crank up the volume to the maximum possible levels.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned his experience on the bus, when he was travelling to the House for his early start today. Anyone travelling on the London underground will recognise the annoyance when a fellow commuter plays music so loudly that the whole carriage shares a tinny rendition of Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, or whatever they are playing. As the hon. Gentleman argues, it is not only a nuisance for other travellers, but a long-term threat to the person's hearing.

To add to the hon. Gentleman's examples, a report by Eurosafe-the European Association for Injury Prevention and Safety Promotion-says that up to one in 10 music listeners risk permanent hearing loss if they listen to a personal music player for more than an hour a week at high volumes over a five-year period. We define high volume as more than 89 dB. Eurosafe estimates that up to 10 million consumers across Europe-a significant proportion from this country-are at risk. I think the hon. Gentleman referred to that figure, too.

Stories in the UK already suggest that more young people are ending up at audiologists suffering from tinnitus or hearing loss because of exposure to loud music. One audiologist was quoted as saying that he is seeing

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The danger is that many young people could find themselves swapping their headphones for hearing aids later in life because of their listening habits.

I remind the House that sound-induced hearing damage is not just about deafness. It can cause difficulties understanding speech in noisy environments, prolonged or permanent tinnitus, and hypersensitivity to loud sounds, all of which can affect a person's life profoundly. The initial damage caused by loud noise is often small, causing slight hearing problems that disappear after a while. It tends to be a slow, creeping process, noticed only after the damage is done.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's efforts to draw attention to the issue. It is something we should be concerned about and responsive to. That view shared is by the European Commission, which, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, issued a mandate on personal music players to the European standardisation bodies in 2009. Those bodies are in the process of developing new technical safety standards for manufacturers of MP3s.

The standards have two key requirements: first, that manufacturers set a safe default volume limit on all personal music players and, secondly, that there are adequate warnings-as the hon. Gentleman has called for-for consumers on the risks involved in listening to music at loud volumes. If I might play devil's advocate, I spoke to a group of young people about music earlier today. One guy, Ben, said, "Look, if I want to listen to Bare Groove or Kasabian very loud, then it's my business." A lot of people think that way; they see any form of regulation as a constraint on their ability to choose. They have a point. To some extent, personal choice is important in this debate, and I do not think anyone in the House would want to deny that. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is also fair to say that when some music players on the market are reaching 115 dB-louder than a pneumatic drill-it ceases to be about personal freedom; it is about consumer protection.

I support the mandate that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I believe that ANEC-the European consumer group-is right to recommend a default volume limit of 89 dB, with a manual override allowing someone to increase the maximum volume to 100 dB if they so choose. It is also appropriate to consider a lower volume cap for products aimed at children. ANEC is calling for a limit of 80 dB, the level at which the risk of hearing loss becomes negligible. That seems sensible to me, and offers us the best of both worlds. It gives protection for the youngest and most vulnerable, and gives others the freedom to listen to The Who, The Jam or whatever at a higher volume if they choose, but with clear warnings in place if they manually override the default setting.

Although responsibility for regulation sits with the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills-a point the hon. Gentleman made-we support the new standards and will work with the European Commission on them. I also understand from the Commission that manufacturers are showing real willingness to work with the Commission to ensure that their products are safe, and I welcome that responsible attitude.

As the hon. Gentleman suggests, regulation is only one lever for change. The risk of hearing damage depends not just on how loud the noise is, but how long people listen for. Even at 89 dB, prolonged exposure can cause harm, so I agree that educating people and encouraging
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them to set their music at safe levels continues to be important, not least because it will be some time before the European mandate comes into full effect.

I recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the importance of being proactive. He is right to say that we do not believe a Government awareness campaign is appropriate at this stage, but I am keen that we should work with charities such as the RNID and manufacturers to inform people better of the dangers. I am pleased to be able to tell him that I will now ask the officials at the Department to talk to the RNID see if we can work with them on future public awareness work.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the online campaign, "Don't Lose the Music", which gives people simple advice, such as taking a five-minute break from their MP3 players every hour, or not turning the volume up to drown out noise when they are on the tube. I want to see if we can help the campaign to build on this, as I recognise that too many people do not realise that listening to The Killers or to Dillinja and the valve sound-I have not listened to those myself, but I understand that they are particularly loud-at high volumes can damage their health. There is a big education challenge to meet, but I think we are best served if we can get charities and manufacturers working together, with our support, on better information and advice for consumers.

We are a nation of music lovers. I confess that I am a fan of Elvis Costello, Nils Lofgren and Lou Reed, so I do not want to do anything to dent my or other people's enjoyment of the excellent music that this country has produced for many years. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important that people listen
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to music players safely and without unwittingly-the point that he is making-damaging their hearing. We do not want the fantastic innovation of MP3 players to be spoiled by stories of young people experiencing hearing loss because they are listening to Royworld or Bachman-Turner Overdrive at ear-splitting volumes.

The European mandate is a helpful starting point for protecting the consumer without infringing people's rights. The Government support the mandate. We welcome the way in which manufacturers have responded so far, and we will work with them and the European Commission to protect our ears. We will work with the RNID and others to introduce public awareness campaigns to ensure that we can all continue to enjoy our music in the years ahead.

Bob Russell: May I place on record my appreciation of the Minister's positive response? We have got more out of the debate tonight than I was hoping for, and I am sure that a big step forward has been taken. I sincerely thank him for the positive response.

Phil Hope: I am glad, and I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman sees that the Government are serious. I know that there is more to do. We can work across Government more effectively. I will take away tonight the pledge to work with him and with colleagues in the voluntary sector and others to make sure that we can make a real difference on the issue.

Question put and agreed to.

9.34 pm

House adjourned.

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