By Joseph Cerquone
For hearing safety advocates, this photo is akin to art in its ability to inspire. In it, Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints has just won the 2010 Super Bowl and is hoisting his infant son to the delight of the stadium crowd. Baby Brees wears hearing protection. A caption could read: “Few things are more important than hearing.”
This would be a good time to reprint that photo and plaster it all over sports venues nationwide. Why now? Well, take what happened in Washington State recently. Stadium noise from a Seattle Seahawks National Football League home game registered as an earthquake at a nearby tracking station belonging to the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network. Whipped into sustained yelling and screaming in a structure that facilitates noise, fans were competing with counterparts in other cities. Why? For the dubious distinction of having their stadium set the Guinness World Record for being the loudest in all of outdoor sports.
The competition has produced truly ear-splitting stats. Noise is reported to have shot into the 130-decibel range, while game duration levels have sat in the mid-90s “extremely loud” area.
For some idea of the fans’ experience, imagine spending three hours where the noise level surpasses those produced by snow blowers, chain saws, sirens, and jackhammers. That is the average length of games in the National Football League—games that are trending longer.
Hearing Experts Worry
A major worry is that some fans will get tinnitus, a ringing in the ears when no sound is present that can be downright torture. Audiologist Rich Tyler, a tinnitus expert, cautions fans to be concerned even if the ringing is initially temporary. It can turn permanent with the right mix of added exposure.
“That happens to factory workers,” he says. “At first, the ringing goes away after a noisy work day. But eventually, the ringing stays.” Tyler adds: “Tinnitus can have a negative impact on primary functions. It affects the ability to hear, interact, socialize, and communicate. Many tinnitus sufferers have great trouble sleeping. They grow anxious. Their emotions become affected.”
But it is not just the specter of tinnitus that is worrisome. Fans with hearing loss would be more susceptible to suffering further damage, while others could develop hyperacusis–a condition marked by moderately loud sounds being perceived as very loud and extremely annoying. It is easy to imagine people with hyperacusis finding game attendance tough to tolerate and continue. While no one seems to doubt that there is risk to being exposed to the excessive noise that is continually stirred up in football stadiums and other sports venues, the amount and type of damage that results will hinge on several factors, including proximity to sound sources, amounts of exposure, and fans’ individual make up and health.
Because the two teams with the noisiest fans this year—the Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs—are winning and have made it to the playoffs, it is easy for those exhorting fans to become ever louder to attribute their team’s success on the playing field to the off-the-charts noise from the stands.
Even the Seahawks’ billionaire owner, Paul Allen, has been caught up in the frenzy of Seattle fans trying break the noise record (see below).
Seattle media are replete with calls for loudness at Seahawks games, according to Nancy Alarcon. A long-time resident of nearby Redmond, Alarcon is an enthusiastic fan. “I’m wearing Seahawks blue,” she reports proudly, then lauds home team quarterback Russell Wilson’s weekly visits to a local children’s hospital.
Still, her professional and personal lives motivate Alarcon to be just as passionate about hearing safety as she is about her favorite team. And, as a speech language pathologist, she also raises concern about yelling fans’ vocal health. The principal lecturer and clinic director in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of Washington, Alarcon hasn’t forgotten the threshold shift in her husband’s hearing from attending just one loud social gathering.
She acknowledges that earplugs were distributed at one game, but adds that many more positive steps are needed. “Earplugs should be distributed at every game. Announcers could regularly mention the importance of hearing protection. Safety messages should be put up in stadiums.”
According to her, the broad goal should be making hearing protection an integrated, sustained, and widespread aspect of game attendance. To achieve it, she says education is needed that leads to acceptance of the notion that game enjoyment and safety can go together. “The idea is the same as what is behind the Listen To Your Buds campaign of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association–that you can enjoy music and listen to it safely at the same time.”
Potential for Future Litigation?
Just how willing team owners and leagues are to temper things remains to be seen. Tyler suggests the risk to hearing could eventually become difficult for them to ignore.
“There could be lawsuits against proponents of loud noise from those who suffer from hearing loss, tinnitus and hyperacusis,” he notes, not unlike what is happening with traumatic brain injury.
Meanwhile, quests for excessive noise records are spreading. Recently, fans at Sleep Train Arena, home of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Sacramento Kings, first set a record for loudest noise at an indoor arena–119.5 decibels–then used halftime to set a new mark, 122.6 decibels.
A story about this has a photo of a woman holding a sign, “BEST FANS IN THE NBA.” It makes you long for the one of Drew Brees and son.
Joseph Cerquone, CAE, is Director of Public Relations for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). ASHA is the national professional, scientific, and credentialing association for more than 166,000 audiologists, speech-language pathologists, and speech, language, and hearing scientists.