- The Washington Times - Monday, January 1, 2007

ROANOKE (AP) — A device that its developers hope will protect people from hearing loss flashes red when an MP3 player or lawn mower is emitting enough noise to cause damage.

Three staff members of the Hollins Communications Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that researches speech and hearing, spent about a year developing the device, called Ear3.

“We’re so concerned about eating properly, exercising and getting physical checkups, and we’re idiots about our ears,” director Ronald Webster said.

People can lose half of their hearing range before they notice it, said Mr. Webster, a retired Hollins University psychology professor who founded the institute in 1972.

Of the 32.5 million American adults with some degree of hearing loss, about 22 million suffered permanent damage from noise, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Young, healthy ears can recover from limited exposure to noise, Mr. Webster said, but “repeated insults lead to hearing loss.”

Mr. Webster said the institute developed the measuring device because it was concerned about the sound MP3 players can emit.

A sound level of 85 decibels is in the danger zone for hearing loss, he said, and such personal audio players can emit up to 110 decibels.

“We’re beginning to see more and more younger people showing up” with hearing loss, he said.

The Ear3 is a handheld device with a port that can measure noise or sound from an ear bud.

Its red danger signals go from slow flashing at 85 to 90 decibels to steady red at 90 and rapid-fire flashes at 100.

“We’re just so absolutely ignorant about sound,” Mr. Webster said. “We expose ourselves to all kinds of threats and never even think about it.”

Mr. Webster said he thought he was protected in the enclosed cab of his new farm tractor, but got a reading of 90 to 95 decibels from the Ear3. “It certainly woke me up,” he said.

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