Hearing Loss Article

The Heat want cheers, but can crowd noise at games hurt your hearing? May 29, 2006

And Dr. Danesh would know a thing or two about hearing: He's director of the Audiology Clinic at Florida Atlantic University. "The sound can be loud. It can damage your ear," Danesh said. (Sun-Sentinel.com)

The Heat Want Cheers, but Can Crowd Noise at Games Hurt Your Hearing?

By Patrick Dorsey, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

May 29--MIAMI—Dwyane Wade sank a fast-break 3-pointer. Then a rock concert broke out.

Well, sort of.

When Wade made his third 3-pointer of the first quarter of a recent playoff game, the sound level, measured from Section 103 in American Airlines Arena, briefly reached 109 decibels.

That's about the same as an average rock concert. Or a chain saw. Or a bouncing South Beach club.

That's why Dr. Ali Danesh, sitting near the back of Section 120, wore earplugs during his trip to the rowdy arena. And Dr. Danesh would know a thing or two about hearing: He's director of the Audiology Clinic at Florida Atlantic University.

"The sound can be loud. It can damage your ear," Danesh said. "I wanted to be there, but I wanted to enjoy the game. There's nothing wrong [with] being there, but at the same time we can protect our hearing so it won't cause any problems for us later on."

Some might be tempted to copy Danesh and take precautions before tonight's Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, hoping to block out the noise of the arena's loud music, public address announcer and the Heat's raucous fans.

But those running to the store to buy industrial-strength earplugs might want to slow down. It seems, while certainly helpful, hearing protection at Heat games isn't a necessity.

According to the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration, an average person can spend up to eight hours per day in a 90-decibel environment before sustaining hearing loss.

In a 100-decibel environment, that duration is only two hours. And at 110 decibels, a level reached or nearly reached a few times in most playoff games, more than half an hour of continuous exposure can cause damage to the inner ear.

Wade's cheer, however, lasted just a few seconds.

"It's not a constant exposure—it goes up and down," said Dr. Fred Telischi, director of the University of Miami Ear Institute. "For a several-hour game, with highs and lows, you're probably not looking at a very dangerous scenario in terms of hearing loss."

Wade's 3-point basket caused the peak of that game. In Game 5 of the series against the New Jersey Nets, decibel levels in Section 103 occasionally topped 110. In the loudest parts of the arena—such as Section 105, toward which a speaker is pointed—the decibel level reached as high as 112.

But the level during game play usually stayed in the 80s, occasionally jumping into the 90s or dipping into the 70s. In the sections draped in speaker sound, this level was a few decibels more. The 300 and 400 levels were about as loud as the lower levels.

The longest sustained loud period of the series against the Nets was after Wade stole the ball to clinch the final game. Measured from Section 105, the decibel level stayed higher than 100 for two minutes and six seconds—still not enough to damage hearing, according to OSHA.

The measurements were taken by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel using a store-bought electronic decibel meter.

While audiologists typically agree with OSHA standards, some doctors insist they aren't for everyone.

"It depends also on your susceptibility, like anything else," said Dr. Kim Schur, director of the League for the Hard of Hearing in Florida. "Some people are more susceptible to be physically affected by the noise levels."

But even fans who claim to have sensitive hearing, like Juan Brito, 45, of Miami, don't seem to be put off by the atmosphere.

"I don't like loud music at a bar," Brito said during halftime of the final Heat-Nets game. "I don't feel [AmericanAirlines Arena] is anywhere near that."

Larry Blocker, the Heat's director of game operations and events, said he hasn't received a complaint about loudness "in probably three years."

That means the Heat, and the NBA, must be doing their job.

Blocker said while the Heat tries to create a loud, exciting atmosphere, it also complies with league policy. According to the NBA league office, artificial sound effects during game play can't exceed 85 decibels and artificial sound effects outside of game play can't exceed 95 decibels.

This doesn't account for the crowd, though, which can get as loud as it wants. According to an NBA.com weblog during last year's Finals, the SBC Center in San Antonio reached 114 decibels, an unofficial finals record the league could not confirm.

Popular opinion says the crowd is even louder in Sacramento's Arco Arena. Other sports, like auto racing, have decibel levels reaching 130 or higher, a near-dangerous level.

Heat games still can be harmful to sensitive fans or those already undergoing hearing loss. Therefore, doctors say, it's a good idea for these people to protect themselves—be it with cheap, foam earplugs or hearing-preserving antioxidants. Even for those without hearing problems, doctors say, protection never hurts.

But for the most part at AmericanAirlines Arena, things seem to be just right for fans: soft enough to be comfortable, but enough big sound to please even the Big Diesel.

"It gets real loud," said Heat center Shaquille O'Neal said. "Being at home and being on the road is a different kind of loud. Here, it's an energizing loud."

Patrick Dorsey can be reached at pdorsey@sun-sentinel.com