Are Noise-Cancelling Headphones Safe?

Our children have asked for noise-canceling headphones. We don’t understand the technology. Is there any chance it could lead to any of the concerns that cell phones have raised such as the possibility of increased brain tumor risk?

– August 16, 2010

Noise-canceling headphones reduce background sounds such as the roar of an airplane engine, the rumble of a train and highway noise. They do this by producing an “anti-noise” sound wave that interferes with and cancels out unwanted background noise. They contain a microphone placed near the ear and electronic circuitry that generates the opposing sound. Unlike cell phones, noise-cancelling headphones do not emit low level radiation and do not pose any of the potential hazards that could stem from frequent use of a cell phone held next to the ear.

Actually, noise-cancelling headphones can be beneficial, since both loud noises and constant low-level noise can lead to health problems. Acute loud noises can damage hearing, interfere with sleep, raise blood pressure and stress levels and cause headaches. As for low-level noise, a study published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America in March, 2001, found that Austrian children who live in neighborhoods with constant low-level noise (mostly from automobile and train traffic) had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than youngsters who lived in quieter neighborhoods. And a study published in the February, 2006, issue of the European Heart Journal found that heart attack risk was higher among people exposed to chronic noise.

I actually recommend noise-canceling headphones to help avert the health problems noise exposure can present. By neutralizing surrounding noise, kids can listen to music without turning up the volume so high that poses a risk to their hearing. The sound quality of the music (or whatever else you’re listening to) may not be as good as it is with non-canceling high quality audio headphones, according to a 2007 review of these products I read in The New York Times, and with some of these devices you can hear a hissing noise when music is not playing. But overall, I think you would be doing your kids (and their hearing) a favor by giving them noise-canceling headphones.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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