EAGAN, Minn. -- "It feels weird" is the common reaction as Eagan High School band students sit patiently while hearing experts squirt a substance into their ears that will form a mold for custom ear protection.
"We're doing our part to prevent hearing loss down the road," said band director Brett Benson.
He iswise to be concerned. Audiologists say there has been a dramatic increase in hearing loss among teenagers in the United States in recent years. Estimates indicate one in five teens has some form of hearing loss.
"We've never seen this age population with this much hearing loss," said Marshall Rosner with Sonus Hearing Care. His group is fitting Eagan's band students with hearing protection at a greatly reduced rate to make sure they don't become part of the statistics.
David Fabry earned a Ph.D. in audiology from the University of Minnesota. He's now with Starkey Hearing Technologies and a leading expert in hearing. His assessment of the situation? "We think it is due in large part to the iPod generation."
Fabry says his company sells a lot of hearing aids to help people who have hearing loss, but he would be happy to never sell another hearing aid to anyone who has preventable hearing loss. That's why he's talking to teens at Minnetonka High School.
After measuring the wind ensemble's peak levels of around 100 decibels in practice, Fabry assured students periodic exposures to those levels over an hour-long band class will likely not damage their hearing.
Their headphones are another issue. Fabry invites one student to let him measure the output on his iPhone. "That's at a level that's reasonable, 76 decibels," Fabry told a visibly relieved student.
Fabry told the students setting the level on their MP3 players and other devices is not protection enough. The headphones they plug into those devices can make a big difference.
"You could take the same iPhone as the same maximum and plug in different headphones and get very different exposure levels," said Fabry.
He said high-end headphones, as opposed to earbuds are more problematic. Because they don't leak sound, parents can't tell if teens have the volume turned up too loud.
To get the message across, Minnetonka is rolling out a program this spring created with the help of the Starkey Hearing Foundation that will educate middle and high schoolers about the need to protect their hearing.
"Next year it will be going into our curriculum, starting in the elementary, going into middle school and the high school will be very involved ingetting that message out to students as well," said assistant principal Amy Steiner.
At Eagan, band students will now be able to take matters into their own hands by choosing to wear ear protection when they play.
As a percussionist who was taught by his instructors the importance of hearing awareness, Benson wants his own students to have the same benefit.
"We've kind of taken it on ourselves as the adults here with the instruction on the background and hearing loss as well as the association with Sonus, to instruct our kids and try to educate them on how important that is."
Minnetonka band director Miles Mortenson takes a similar long term view.
"The band students are very aware, and they love doing this very much and they want to continue to do this." he said.