Solar-Powered Hearing Aids Are Music to the Ears of Kids Around the World
Grace O’Brien’s motto has always been, “I don’t know what I want to be, but I want to be something great. Meaning, I want to make sure that whatever I choose to do, it’s making a positive impact.”
So far, the 18-year old Stanford freshman is off to a pretty good start. At 14, she founded the nonprofit Ears for Years, which has supplied hundreds of low-cost, solar-powered hearing aids to children in developing countries. And O’Brien has already received national attention as one of the 2015 winners of the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes.
Founder of Ears for Years Grace O'Brien, center. Photo credit: Earsforyears.org
When she was growing up, O’Brien says, her family was very service-minded. She often spent Sunday mornings serving food at a local homeless shelter or making blankets for hospitals with her sisters. But the issue of hearing loss really hit home when her father developed a brain tumor and suffered some hearing loss, making communication difficult. Later, while looking for a summer volunteer position, she discovered a theater camp for deaf children.
“I knew it was the perfect place for me to integrate my love for theater and volunteering,” O’Brien says. “As I worked with the kids over the summer, I realized how important hearing aids were to many of the children's ability to learn and communicate. I became more involved in the deaf community that summer, and I discovered that there are roughly 30 million hard-of-hearing children in developing countries who could benefit from a hearing aid but don’t have access to one.”
According to the World Health Organization, of the 360 million people around the world who suffer from hearing loss, 32 million are children, and the majority are in developing countries.
“I wanted to find a sustainable and affordable solution, so when I came across Solar Ear, I knew I had to work with them,” O’Brien says. “I reached out to the founder of Solar Ear, Howard Weinstein, and we realized many of our goals were aligned, so it seemed like a perfect fit to work together. My friends and family served as pillars of support, helping me arrange fund-raisers and get the word out. I also created a club at my high school.”
Founded in 2003, Solar Ear seeks to address not only the high cost of hearing aids in developing countries, but also the difficulty and high cost of keeping them charged. Standard hearing aids can cost as much as $1,000, require constant battery changes and don’t have a long life span. The Solar Ear device is $100, has a three-year life span and includes rechargeable batteries that use a solar-powered charger. The charger can also be plugged into a light socket to recharge.
“In the developing world, people lucky enough to own a hearing aid either can’t get hold of or can’t afford the batteries which, by the way, they have to replace once a week,” Weinstein told the World Health Organization. “So the devices end up on a shelf somewhere or in the kitchen drawer.”
Weinstein shares O’Brien’s desire to make a positive impact.
“We could have patented the Solar Ear charger in a heartbeat, but we wanted people to copy us,” Weinstein said. “In fact, if somebody ends up producing a cheaper, better version of the Solar Ear and uses their distribution channel to get more products to more children with hearing loss, we will have attained our objective—even if that puts us out of business.”
So far, Solar Ear has gone into production in Brazil, China, Mexico, Russia and Singapore, with one condition from Weinstein: that deaf people be involved in making them.
“Hearing aids can be an essential tool for communication for someone who is hard of hearing,” says O’Brien, “so I think it’s important for children who need them to have them, to retain information, get a valid education and have a chance at building a better life for themselves.”
The Solar Ear rechargeable battery and solar charger. Photo credit: YouTube
O’Brien explains that many developing countries don’t have special schools or accommodations for deaf children, so it can be difficult for them to learn and interact with their peers.
“I believe every child should be given the tools they need to get a valid education,” she says, “and for hard-of-hearing children, that tool set might be a little different.”
O’Brien has already traveled to Mexico, Sri Lanka, Honduras, Nicaragua and South Korea, fitting hundreds of children with Solar Ear hearing aids and educating communities about deafness.
“Many people don’t know what causes deafness,” she says, “so explaining it can help to prevent and eradicate prejudices.” Among children, chronic otitis media, meaning a long-standing ear infection, is the leading cause of hearing impairment.
While O’Brien hopes to continue providing deaf and hard-of-hearing children around the world with hearing aids, she’s casting a much wider net for her future.
“By spreading the word and fighting for people with disabilities, I hope I can find ways to convince countries that don’t already have accommodations to implement programs and accommodations for children with disabilities,” she says. “I’m still young, and my life has the potential to take many different paths, but wherever I go, I want to make sure I’m making a positive difference.”
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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