José Luis Villegas / jvillegas@sacbee.com

Tech Sgt. Brian McCollum and his children Brian Jr., Brianna and Bailee scream as the noise in Sleep Train Arena reaches 126 decibels in the fourth quarter of Friday night’s Kings-Pistons basketball game, setting an indoor-stadium record. Auditory experts say exposure to such a din may damage hearing.

As ground-shaking noise rocks sports, eardrums take a big hit

Published: Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013 - 10:32 pm

National Football League teams are racing this season to secure the title of loudest outdoor stadium in the world.

The Seattle Seahawks, who boast that their fans caused a small earthquake after a 2011 touchdown, acclaimed their crowd’s record decibel level this September after an effort orchestrated by the fan group Volume 12. Four weeks later, the Kansas City Chiefs – who are still unbeaten – topped the month-old Seattle record, in part because of a scream-a-thon organized by the fan group Terrorhead Returns.

“Be LOUD AND PROUD and blow my eardrums out!” one Chiefs fan wrote on Facebook.

The NFL encourages the din.

“Fans know they are going to a football game and not searching for a book at a library,” said Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman.

And it’s not just the NFL.

On Friday night, the Kings set a record for the loudest roar at an indoor facility. The sellout crowd of 17,317 reached 124.9 decibels during a first quarter timeout, then hit 126 decibels before the start of the fourth quarter to break the previous Guinness Book of World Records mark of 106.6 set by Milwaukee Bucks fans in 2008.

“We take the safety and comfort of our fans very seriously,” Kings president Chris Granger said in a statement released by the team Saturday. “We passed out 17,317 sets of ear plugs, enough for every person in the building. Ear plugs are available at any event in the arena.”

But all that noise can come with a serious cost. With peaks for touchdowns and troughs at timeouts, the average volume during an NFL game is probably in the mid-90-decibel range, said Elliott Berger, an acoustical engineer at 3M, which makes protective hearing devices.

At those levels, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends limiting exposure to 60 minutes. The average NFL game lasts about three times that long. And Berger said someone screaming at close range could reach 120 decibels – as loud as an ambulance siren.

Fans accustomed to hollering may scoff at the warnings as nanny-state silliness. But to auditory experts, the danger is very real.

“People think it’s cool or funny or whatever, but there is increasing evidence that, if your ears are ringing, damage is happening,” said M. Charles Liberman, a professor of otology at Harvard Medical School and the director of a hearing research lab at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. “There’s something irreversible going on. It’s only going to worsen as you get older.”

Liberman’s research shows that, even if the immediate effects of noise overexposure subside – the ringing, the muffling, the feeling of pressure – ears do not really recover.

“There is a huge range of ear vulnerability,” Liberman said, with some people having “tough” ears and others having “tender” ears. “You don’t know till it happens to you.”

The potential damage includes not just partial deafness and ringing, but also less common auditory abnormalities such as hyperacusis, an intolerance to sound sometimes accompanied by ear pain.

Just about everyone inside a football stadium on game day acknowledges that the noise is overpowering.

In the Chiefs’ game against the Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium in October, the noise peaked at 137.5 decibels – louder than a jackhammer nearby. The noise level at Arrowhead is the current world record for an outdoor stadium, according to Guinness.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid said he could “feel the ground shaking” and later heard ringing in his ear that was not covered by a headset.

Kevin Flaherty, 42, attended the raucous Seahawks game against the 49ers and was relieved to see earplugs distributed to fans, thanks to the Hearing, Speech and Deafness Center of Seattle. The center arranged a donation of 30,000 earplugs from 3M.

Flaherty found the jet-engine roar of the crowd so unpleasant that “it was almost like, gosh, I don’t want to be here,” he said. With earplugs, the din was loud but “no longer uncomfortable.”

But his son, Ben, a sixth-grader, could not fit the earplugs in his ear canals. So he endured a steady roar “so loud that the insides of you rattle.”

“It’s insane,” Ben said. “I shoved my earflap over my ear.”

Loud fan loyalty is encouraged by people like Joe Tafoya, a former NFL linebacker who does marketing for Volume 12, the fan group that promotes full-volume screaming. As Tafoya publicly rallied fans to topple the world record for loudest stadium, he heard from the Hearing, Speech and Deafness Center with concerns about the noise.

“I had no idea,” Tafoya said. “When we started this, it wasn’t something I had thought about.”

As uncomfortable as 67,000 fans simultaneously cheering a touchdown may be for most people, “going to a handful of games in the course of the year is not going to be a problem,” said Jennifer Tufts, an associate professor of audiology at the University of Connecticut who is the president of the National Hearing Conservation Association.

But people suffering from hearing problems are not likely to thank fans in the row behind them for cheering in their ears.

“There’s nobody who says, ‘I wish my tinnitus was louder,’” Tufts said.

Many people at sports stadiums, night clubs and concerts equate a roaring crowd with a good time. In some corners, ringing ears can even become a point of pride.

“People say, ‘Yeah, man, my ears are ringing,’” said James Filsinger, 48, a Seahawks season-ticket holder, “but it’s always in a fun, upbeat kind of way.” Sometimes his friends will say that the game left their ears ringing for a week. “Most people exaggerate about how long it lasted, but it just goes away,” he said.

Not always.

“Tinnitus may go away or it may not,” said Larry E. Roberts, an emeritus professor and auditory neuroscientist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “It may go away, but then it will come back. The ringing may well get worse with persistent exposure.”

Up to 10 percent of the U.S. population has permanent tinnitus, according to the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

“Continuous ringing sounds can be very disabling for some people,” who sometimes compare it to a teakettle that never stops whistling, Roberts said. “Our ability to damage our ears in our modern age is really quite considerable.”

Hearing damage is almost entirely preventable with earplugs or earmuffs, like those worn by Drew Brees’ 1-year-old son when the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl in 2010.

Next month, Seahawks fans are planning to take back the loudness record – with or without earplugs.

Bee Sports Editor Tom Couzens contributed to this report.

Read more articles by Joyce Cohen



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