Airbags can cause hearing loss

National News
Car Airbags Can Cause Permanent Hearing Loss, Study Says
February 14, 2007

A researcher at a national hearing conference will present data that predicts 17 percent of people exposed to deployed airbags in American cars will suffer from permanent hearing loss. His data also shows, contrary to what experts have previously thought, airbag deployment is more hazardous to the ear when a car's windows are rolled down.

These are among the results that will be presented by auditory physiologist Dr. G. Richard Price at the National Hearing Conservation Association's 32nd annual hearing conference. The conference, titled, "A Passion to Preserve," will be held Feb. 15-17 at the Hyatt Regency in Savannah, Ga.

In Price's study of car airbag deployment, he sought to determine whether the auditory danger was greatest in cars with the windows down or the windows up. Previously, experts thought rolled-up windows were more dangerous because they allow for higher pressure to be created inside the cabin.

The research concludes, counterintuitively, that having car windows rolled up when airbags are deployed is actually less hazardous to the ear than rolled-down windows. This is because the higher pressure generated in the closed cabin actually prevents greater damage to the ear. The pressure causes a displacement in the middle ear that stiffens the stapes, a small bone outside the inner ear. This stiffening limits the transmission of energy to the inner ear, where hearing damage takes place. In airbag experiments where the cabin is completely sealed and pressure is even higher, hearing damage is reduced even further.

Price's study only included cars sold in the United States with front and side airbags. Under U.S. regulations, American cars must have larger, more powerful airbags than cars sold in places like Europe. Cars with smaller airbags sold in other parts of the world would likely pose less auditory danger when tested under identical circumstances, Price said.

"We often consider only the benefits of safety technology, rather than the unfortunate potential side effects," said NHCA Director of Education Brian Fligor. "This type of study highlights how common everyday occurrences present a very real hazard to our hearing."

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