By, Daniel Fink, M.D.
Some public health crises–the spread of Zika or an outbreak of Ebola, for example–are surprises. But on September 8th, with the start of the National Football League season in Denver, a public health crisis can be predicted with stunning accuracy. Weaponized stadium noise levels, used by professional football teams to interfere with visiting teams’ play calling, will cause mass auditory damage to tens of thousands of football fans.
Stadium noise is a danger at college games, too. But I am going to focus on the professional game because the football players, team staff, and stadium employees are protected by regulations promulgated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which establishes permissible exposure levels for workplace noise. The public and student athletes in college sports have no such protection. For some strange reason–most likely because the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) was defunded in 1981–there are no federal safe noise levels for the public. (For background on the defunding of ONAC, see Lessons from a Public Policy Failure: EPA and Noise Abatement).
The world record stadium noise level of 142.2 decibels was set in 2014, in a game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the visiting Seattle Seahawks. That record exceeds the OSHA maximum permissible noise level of 140 decibels! The crowd in Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium broke Seattle’s previous record of 137.6 decibels. At 136 decibels, the maximum legal time for workplace exposure is less than one second. So one could say that both stadium noise records likely set another world record: the largest number of people sustaining auditory damage at one event. At Arrowhead Stadium, that world record number was 76,613.
Football games were always noisy, but not this noisy. From 1989 until 2007, an NFL rule allowed officials to penalize a team if fans made noise loud enough to interfere with play calling. Abolition of that rule allowed home teams to turn up the volume, both of crowd noise and of amplified sound.
So how loud is 140 decibels? That’s about as loud as a jet engine at full throttle getting ready for takeoff. That’s loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), or hyperacusis (a sensitivity to noise) with only one brief exposure. Brief repeated noise exposure is called intermittent exposure. While the noise exposure may not meet the continuous exposure thresholds used by OSHA, the total effect of enough intermittent loud noise exposure may be sufficient to cause auditory damage.
If thousands of football fans suffered diarrhea after eating tainted food or drinking contaminated water at a football game, public health authorities would sweep in, investigate, and take action. But because it’s “only” hearing loss (and tinnitus and hyperacusis), nothing is done. Keep in mind that an average of 68,000 fans attend each NFL game, which is the highest attendance per game of any professional sports league in the world. That means that more than 17 million fans are potentially at risk of auditory damage in any given year.*
This risk is not hypothetical. Research first reported in 2009 indicates that there is no such thing as temporary auditory damage. If someone exposed to loud noise has temporary tinnitus or diminished hearing after exposure, permanent auditory damage has been sustained.
Some football teams have started to respond to the dangerous noise levels by offering earplugs to fans. Is this enough? In a word, no. Without efforts to control noise levels, without warning fans that their hearing is being endangered, and without public health authorities taking steps to protect the public’s auditory health, more needs to be done. If not, perhaps trial attorneys will step in where the government refuses to tread. I can see the lawyers’ advertisements on television: “Were you at Arrowhead Stadium on September 29, 2014? Do you have problems with your hearing now? Call us to learn what you can do to get compensated for your permanent hearing injury.”
In the meantime, if it sounds too loud, it IS too loud! Fans should bring their own earplugs or earmuff hearing protection to both professional and college football games. And if the noise level is above 100 decibels, follow the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s recommendation and bring both!
*The actual number of people at risk of auditory damage from NFL games annually is fewer than 17 million as many people attend more than one professional football game each season, but it has to be a large number. The noise exposure issue is a complex one beyond a full discussion in a brief blog post. Key issues include the Time Weighted Average (TWA) noise exposure (i.e., the total noise dose at an event and over a day, a year, and a lifetime that causes auditory damage) and the fact that if one experiences only two hours of noise above 85 decibels it is mathematically impossible to reach the CDC’s recommendation of an average noise dose of only 70 decibels for 24 hours to avoid hearing loss. A discussion of sound measurement and A and C weighting and the difference between an occupational noise exposure and a safe noise exposure level for the public is also beyond the scope of this brief blog post.
Daniel Fink, M.D., is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Opinions expressed in this article are his own and not necessarily those of the American Tinnitus Association, Quiet Communities, or The Quiet Coalition.