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The Sounds of March Madness are Bad for Your Ears

You probably think that sport is a healthy activity. True, all that cardiovascular workout will likely result in a healthy heart, weight loss, increased bone density, and many other benefits.

But, being a spectator at a sport event can have a downside. Excessive crowd noise --such as cheering, yelling, chanting, and loud drumming --can be toxic to your ears.

As basketball fans are gearing up for the excitement of March Madness, and the major league baseball season will soon be in full swing, the question is: how do we have fun at sports events and still protect our hearing?

No Sounds of Silence

If chess, fly-fishing, and golf are not your cup of tea, chances are you will be exposed to varying levels of stadium noise, which, in a long run, might not only harm your hearing but also cause headaches and other stress-related conditions.

Just how loud are your favorite sporting events? While coherent scientific data is difficult to come by, these disparate examples can give you some indication of the general rowdiness:

Last year scientists tested sound levels in Michigan Stadium during halftime of University of Michigans game against University of Minnesota. Their results showed that the student section is about as loud as a chain saw.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers Raymond James Stadium features a pirate ship that fires a deafening cannon each time the home team scores a touchdown. And Minnesota Vikings fans at the Metrodome have come to accept jarring horn noises during games.

The N.F.L. doesnt keep statistics on stadium noise, but in 2006 an Indianapolis schoolteacher, John Koke, took a decibel meter to the Pittsburgh Steelers game, and his findings were reported in The Indianapolis Star.

The music between plays was 94 decibels, he reported, almost as loud as a lawn mower. When Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger stood at the line of scrimmage, the fans' roar reached 102 decibels - about as loud as a jackhammer. But the sound level peaked when Colts quarterback Peyton Manning scored an 80-yard touchdown: 108 decibels, almost as loud as the revving of a motorcycle engine.

But the noise disturbance at sports events is not just a U.S. phenomenon. The fans, it seems, are even louder on the other side of the big pond. Last years study measuring noise levels at British soccer games made some worrying discoveries: depending on which teams were playing and whose fans were cheering -- stadium noise registered at between 115 and 130 decibels, levels that are equivalent to sandblasting and jet engine rev-ups.

Give me a Q-U-I-E-T

Just why is it important to keep sporting events noise at a comfortable for your earslevel? Simple: chronic exposure to hazardous levels of environmental noise, such as the loud cheering, yelling and chanting at sports events, can lead to hearing loss.

And it is not just theory. An estimated 30 million Americans are, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), regularly exposed to dangerous noise levels. That is an increase of 10 million from just a few years ago, and those numbers include many young people who, due to environmental noise exposure, experience diminished hearing as early as in their teens and 20s.

So what exactly is a dangerous noise level? Hearing health specialists say that sounds louder than 85 decibels are potentially hazardous. This means that a prolonged exposure to any sound louder than a normal conversation or the humming of a refrigerator can be damaging to your hearing.

Can you imagine the magnitude of the damage your ears could sustain from all the ruckus of the sports events?

Year-Round Madness

Aside from passing and enforcing local noise ordinances, not much can be done to silence loud sports fans.

But that is not stopping acoustics experts from trying to find a solution. Noting that people find it difficult to speak when they hear a delayed echo of their own voices, Dutch human-factors engineers suggested that a delayed auditory feedback would have a similar effect in a group of people.

By broadcasting an artificially delayed version of a loud chant, it is possible, the engineers argued, to disrupt follow-up chants.

However, the method is not yet proven to be foolproof, which means that the sounds of March Madness will probably continue to resonate loudly throughout Americas basketball courts this season and beyond.

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