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Are your kids' toys too loud?

Are children's toys getting louder? Parents who stroll through any large chain store might swear it's true: Computer games, designed for ever-younger kids, emit an assortment of beeps, blips, peals and shrieks. Try to find a tractor or a bulldozer that doesn't blast a realistic engine roar or other on-the-job sound.

TOYS TESTED

Here are the toys the UCI team tested, followed by the decibel level up close and at a distance of 12 inches:
  • Mattel The Secret Saturdays Fire Sword, 121/109
  • Zillionz Deluxe ATM Savings Bank, 115/106
  • Zillionz Talking Cash Register, 108/100
  • VTech Nitro Web Notebook, 108/100
  • VTech Touch & Teach Turtle, 106/97
  • Leap Frog Learn & Groove Musical Table, 106/96
  • Little Tikes Jungle Jamboree: 2-in-1 Piano/Xylophone, 105/95
  • Little Tikes Poptones Big Rockers Keyboard, 105/96
  • Mattel Batman Dark Knight Sword, 105/95
  • First Act Discovery Rock-it Guitar, 105/93
  • Hasbro Bumblebee Action Figure, 104/95
  • Hasbro Transformers Bumblebee Voice Mixer, 104/94
  • Elmo Rock & Roll Guitar, 102/91
  • Elmo Live Encore, 98/90
  • Tonka Mighty Motorized Garbage Truck, 98/84
  • Zillionz Girl ATM Savings Bank, 90/79
  • Matchbox Rocky the Robot Truck, 86/79

An ear specialist at the University of California-Irvine says toys aren't necessarily increasing in volume, but an increasing number of them produce noise that can damage a child's hearing if sustained for long periods.

"I see lots of patients with noise-induced hearing loss, and it's such an easy thing to prevent," said Dr. Hamid Djalilian, director of Neurotology and Skull Base Surgery at UCI Medical Center's Department of Otolaryngology. "Most commonly we see the damage in later ages, 40 to 50, when we see a substantial drop in hearing.

"Ideally we'd like to educate teenagers, which are not the easiest to educate about noise. But if we can educate parents about the damage that noise can create and make them more sensitive to the issue, then I think they'll be able to shepherd their kids through their years to prevent noise damage."

Djalilian and two other researchers at UCI -- doctoral student Janice Chang and Dr. Joseph Brunworth -- tested a variety of popular toys for decibel levels produced at varying distances.

How much damage noise causes depends on three factors: the decibel level; how

often the noise is repeated; and for how long. A person could sustain damage to the delicate hair cells inside the inner ear with noise of a short duration. For example, going to a very loud concert or nightclub can produce permanent damage within 15 minutes.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration say prolonged exposure to sound at 85 dBs or above can result in hearing damage. By comparison, a normal conversation is about 60 dBs; a garbage disposal or noisy office is about 80 dBs; a power drill or a blender is about 90 dBs; a jet plane during takeoff is 120, when heard from several hundred feet away; and jackhammers and ambulances are 130.

Of the 18 toys Djalilian and his team tested in late 2009, 13 had maximum sounds of at least 100 dBs when measured at their speakers, up close. The loudest was the Secret Saturdays Fire Sword (121 dBs), made by Mattel, followed by the Zillionz Deluxe ATM Savings Bank (115). The toys also were measured from a distance of 12 inches, about the length of a child's arm. Thirteen of the toys clocked it at 90 dBs or higher. In 2006, the first year Djalilian conducted the research at UCI, only four toys hit 90 when measured away from the ear.

Calls or e-mails seeking comment from three manufacturers of toys high on Djalilian's list of 18 -- Mattel (based in El Segundo), Summit Toys (the Birmingham, Ala.-based maker of Zillions) and VTech Electronics North America (of Arlington Heights, Ill.) -- were not returned.

Despite the loudness of these toys, Djalilian emphasized that they aren't inherently unsafe. Most children, after all, don't listen to their toys up close for long periods. But the lesson is that parents should watch how they're played with.

"As long as it's held at arm's length, and not listened for eight hours a day, most of these toys will be safe. But children don't necessarily follow directions. It's really up to the parents to be on top of it," he said.

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