By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – A generation of music-lovers are damaging their hearing with audio players that do not limit dangerously high noise levels, the U.N. health agency said on Tuesday.

Already 466 million people worldwide have debilitating hearing loss, up from 360 million in 2010 and the figure is expected to nearly double to 900 million, or one in every 10 people by 2050, the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

“Over 1 billion young people are at risk of hearing loss simply by doing what they really enjoy doing a lot – which is listening regularly to music through their headphones over their devices,” Dr. Shelly Chadha of WHO’s prevention of deafness and hearing loss program told a news briefing.

The WHO is urging manufacturers and regulators to ensure smartphones and other audio players have software that can ensure people do not listen to too loud music for too long.

“What we propose is certain features like automatic volume reduction and parental control of the volume so that when somebody goes over their sound limit they have the option that the device will automatically reduce the volume to a level which is not going to harm their ears,” Chadha said.

“Our effort through this standard is really to empower the user to make the right listening choice or take the risk of developing hearing loss and tinnitus a few years down the line,” Chadha said.

The European Union is the only part of the world to mandate output levels on personal audio devices be set to a standard of 85 decibels, with a maximum of 100, the WHO said.

The WHO is also looking at volume levels in places such as nightclubs and sporting arenas. It has some guidelines but they are not widely implemented, Chadha said.

“What we working on now in WHO is to develop that kind of regulatory framework about the different venues – which could be restaurants, bars, concerts, it could even be fitness classes which often have very high levels of sound being played and exposure for a long time.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)