Seattle Seahawks fans gained notoriety this season for their ability to generate record-setting levels of noise. After setting an official Guinness World Record for loudest outdoor crowd at a sporting event and having it surpassed by Kansas City Chiefs fans a couple weeks later, the Seahawks’ 12th Man got even louder, setting the current record of 137.6 decibels in December. That level of noise is good for intimidating opponents, but experts are warning that the growing trend of louder conditions at sporting events is hazardous to fans’ ears and can even result in permanent hearing damage.
How Loud Is Too Loud?
According to acoustical consulting firm Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon, & Williams, Inc., crowd noise at NFL games averages between 80 and 90 decibels, which is considered to be in the loud to extremely loud range. A study by Professor Bill Hodgetts of the department of speech pathology and audiology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton found that attending an NHL playoff game was sonically equivalent to sitting next to a chainsaw for three hours, with the crowd roar following a goal being similar to an airplane taking off.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health warns that without proper ear protection, eight hours of continued exposure to 85 decibels could lead to permanent hearing loss. Each time the noise level increases by three decibels, the recommended exposure time is cut in half. A 10-decibel increase in noise represents a 10-fold increase in the amount of energy the ear experiences. At levels over 100 decibels, which crowds often reach at particularly exciting moments in a game, between one and fifteen minutes is enough to cause damage to your ears.
While every person reacts a bit differently to various levels of noise, a single loud game can be enough to cause permanent hearing damage to some people. Season-ticket holders and other fans who regularly attend games are at higher risk due to their increased exposure to high levels of noise; the damage done is cumulative. Fans can leave games with temporary hearing loss or ringing in their ears, or in more serious cases, tinnitus. "Each time your ears have been ringing, that is evidence of hearing loss. There's no recovery mechanism in place for the death of those inner ear cells," Dr. Tim Rindlisbacher, director of sports health at Cleveland Clinic in Toronto, explained to CBC News. Over time permanent damage can occur when the tiny hair cells in the inner ear become too damaged to transmit sound to the brain.
Taking Proper Precautions
There are simple ways to protect your ears at a noisy sporting event. Even simple foam earplugs or $10 ear protection ear muffs can lower noise levels by 20 or 30 decibels. Airport employees who are exposed to jet engines taking off wear ear protection, so it only makes sense for sports fans to do the same when crowd noise can reach the same levels. As Professor Hodgetts told CBC news while recommending ear plugs for stadium-goers, "Be proud in your team, be proud in your stadium, but don't be silly about the exposure you're setting yourself up for.”