Ever since Apple introduced its Health app with iOS 8’s release in 2014, the company has been steadily adding to its roster of tools aimed at keeping us happy and healthy. And now, the tech giant is building in ways for us to maintain an often-overlooked element of our health: Our hearing. In the upcoming iOS13 release, the Apple Health app will feature a headphone volume tracker aimed at letting users know when they’ve got their music (or podcasts, or video sounds, or whatever) turned up too high. Although, as TechCrunch reported, Apple “didn’t get around to discussing” this feature during its keynote at the 2019 WWDC conference on June 3, what little we do know about it so far lays out the groundwork for what could become a valuable part of our daily mobile device usage.
According to TechCrunch, the headphone volume tracker will be part of the newest edition of the Health app on iOS 13, which is scheduled for release in the fall of 2019. Based on data gathered from “calibrated and MFi headphones” (“MFi” meaning headphones manufactured according to the “Made for iPhone/iPod/iPad” specifications issued by Apple), the feature will use “guidance from the [World Health Organization]” to classify the data it gathers on your headphone volume levels as “OK” or “Loud.” We don’t know much else about it right now — but it could be a game changer when it comes to how we take care of our hearing.
But as scant as the Health app’s new feature are right now, we do know a bit more about a similar addition that’s coming to the Apple Watch: The Noise app. Included in the upcoming watchOS 6 release, Noise will use the Apple Watch’s built-in microphone to track the ambient noise around you to, as a press release puts it, “[help] users understand the sound levels in environments such as concerts and sporting events that could negatively impact hearing.” The app will have a decibel meter that will move in real time, showing you exactly how loud your environment is at any given moment; additionally, your Apple Watch can send you a notification if the decibel levels in your environment reach 90 or above.
Although hearing loss can arise from singular incidents — what the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) describes as “a one-time exposure to an intense ‘impulse’ sound, such as an explosion” — you’re more likely to experience hearing loss as a result of damage caused by exposure to dangerous sound levels over time. The thing is, you might not even realize it’s happening — that’s how gradually hearing loss can occur.
We do know, however, roughly how loud a sound has to be and how frequently you have to be exposed to it in order to damage your hearing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sounds that measure 60 decibels (dB) or lower don’t typically cause any damage. Sounds under 85 dB are also usually OK; you might feel annoyed by them — think the noise associated with heavy traffic — but your ears will probably be safe.
At around 85 dB and above, although, it gets a little trickier. Even though 90 dB is usually pegged as the level at which sound levels become unsafe, gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers, which measure in at 80 to 85 dB, can cause damage after two hours of exposure, per the CDC. Motorcycles, which usually come in at around 95 dB, can cause damage after 50 minutes. And it grows exponentially from there: The louder the sound, the less time it takes for it to harm your hearing. Noises that measure 120 dB or above can cause damage immediately.
What’s more, plenty of everyday activities can be loud enough to contribute to hearing loss, even if you don’t usually think of them as dangerous. Attending a sporting event, for example, exposes you to sound levels of 100 dB, the threshold at which hearing loss is possible after 15 minutes. If there’s a construction site you walk by every day during your morning commute, some of the tools and equipment used might be putting out sound levels between around 85 and 120 dB. And when it comes to your headphones, the maximum volume of the sound piping through them could be between 105 and 110 dB — a level at which hearing loss can become possible after less than five minutes.
Both the Apple Watch’s Noise app and the headphone volume tracker featured in the latest edition of iOS’ Health app aim to raise awareness about the everyday sounds to which we’re exposed that might be contributing to hearing loss over time. Unfortunately that’s all they can do right now — raise awareness of how we experience sound and hearing — but that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to do more in the future: Present recommendations about what to do if the data gathered by the app shows you’re regularly in situations with sound levels above 85 or 90 dB, point you towards useful resources based on your sound data and headphone volume habits, and so on and so forth.
Besides, as Brian Heater observed at TechCrunch, the headphone volume tracker still has value as is when it comes to adjusting your own habits. Wrote Heater, “I know I’ve certainly been in situations where I’ve unknowingly cranked the volume up on my headphones at, say, the gum where I’m using my own music to counteract whatever they’re pumping through the PA.” If you know you tend to blast your music at unsafe levels and want to do something about it, the headphone tracker can let you know when you’ve got the volume turned up too high and can help you determine what a safer level to bring it down to might be.
Look out for both the new Health feature and the Noise app when iOS 13 and watchOS 6 are released for their respective devices this fall.