Portable music players aren't just one of the most annoying gadgets on the planet; they can also be one of the most damaging.

While some of us use our MP3 player as a companion with which we can cut ourselves off from our surroundings, others plug in their earphones and crank up the volume to deafening levels.

Matter of sense

Indeed, according to the European Union, the MP3 player could be a secret ear assassin in our midst. After a report suggesting that up to ten million Europeans may one day face permanent hearing loss because of MP3s, officials are now planning to demand that every player have the same, safe maximum volume.

To some, that will sound like an outrageous restriction of personal freedom. For me, however, putting a cap on dangerous decibels sounds more like common sense — such a measure should have been agreed upon by responsible manufacturers years ago.

I have seen what happens to people who have spent a lifetime being subjected to deafeningly loud volumes.

In rock-music circles, deafness is an occupational hazard for those continuously exposed to extremely loud noises.

Beatles producer Sir George Martin, meanwhile, is now seriously deaf, having spent a professional lifetime in front of booming studio speakers.

Quieter alternative

There is no doubt that portable music devices — by which favourite songs are injected directly into the brain and which began with the humble Walkman back in the late Seventies — were initially intended to make private listening easier; a kind of antidote to the ghetto blaster that all parents had grown to hate.

Now with an MP3 in every teenage pocket, Mum and Dad can't complain that the volume at which music is being played is deafening everyone in the family.

As technology has moved on, the number of decibels bouncing off tender young eardrums has only grown. We wouldn't allow the level of some of the noise that hammers into the ears of the young in a factory. Because while regulations insist that industrial noise in the workplace should not be more than 115 decibels and exposure to that should not last more than 15 seconds, some MP3 players can generate music at 120 decibels.

That's like standing next to a runway and listening to jets taking off, over and over for hours on end. Not unreasonably, EU officials want to set a limit of 85 decibels on all players. Not that the possibility of a whole generation being as deaf as posts is the only social ill we can lay at the foot of the MP3 player.

Dangerous obsession

You can cut yourself off from your immediate surroundings and disappear into an inner world. Which is all very well if you are standing in a crowded commuter train trying your hardest to picture yourself somewhere rather more pleasant.

But being cut off from the outside world, as runners are when they listen to their music while jogging, or people when walking or cycling home, can be dangerous. When we block out external sounds by music or anything else, we are making ourselves vulnerable. We don't hear the approaching car, bus or even a mugger behind us; indeed, we become unaware of everything that is not within our immediate vision.

It took millions of years for our ears to develop to be as efficient as they are. We need them; we should take care of them.

The Daily Mail