Right hear, right now.

Maryana Vaserman has been using earphones of one kind or another to listen to music since she was about 10 years old, but unlike most of her friends she’s always kept the volume at a comfortable setting.

“I don’t make it too loud. I try not to because it hurts your ears eventually. I want my hearing. I want to be able to hear for the rest of my life, I don’t listen to very loud music a lot,” the 18-year-old Toronto student says after shutting down her iPod and removing her ear buds.

Vaserman’s take on protecting her sense of sound would be music to the ears of hearing experts, who say cranking up the volume on portable music players and blasting it directly through those tiny headphones is setting the stage for an epidemic of early hearing damage.

Surveys have found 15 per cent of youth ages six to 19 have reduced hearing because of too much exposure to noise. That percentage is bound to get higher as more and more young people plug into sound, whether it’s from iPods or MP3 players, cell phones or video games, hearing specialists say.

Coupled with the din of modern-day society — from street traffic to machinery to noisy clubs and even school cafeterias — the assault on our hearing often seems deafening.

“The additional problem is that when these children get into a noisy environment and they’re wearing these devices,” Harrison says of ear buds. “They have to put the sound up even louder to counteract the environmental sound. “And this is when the levels become really elevated.” Noise-induced hearing loss results from the cumulative onslaught of sound on tiny hair cells in the delicate mechanisms of the inner ear, located behind the eardrum.

Hair cells — so called because of hair-like filaments growing from them — act as mini receivers, moving as sound washes over them and transferring signals through the auditory

nerve to the brain. “The hair cells can’t cope with loud sounds and they become damaged,” Harrison says. “And when they become damaged, they die.”

While humans are born with about 15,000 of these cells, their number is finite, he says. “Hair cells do not regenerate. They don’t recover. Once they’re dead, they’re gone.” In other words, the loss of hearing is permanent.

One sign of damaged hearing is loud ringing in the ears after leaving a noise-filled venue, such as a concert or sports event. Tinnitus, a continuous ringing, swooshing or buzzing in one or both ears, also signals a hearing problem.

Experts also advise wearing earplugs at concerts and while riding ear-splitting machines such as motorcycles and snowmobiles. While some hearing loss is inevitable, as we grow older, usually becoming noticeable in middle age, Harrison says repeated exposure during childhood and adolescence to blaring music and other high-volume sounds is hastening the onset of age-related hearing problems.