Hockey cheers may harm ears: study

Noise levels at some hockey games are dangerously high and could cause hearing problems for fans and staff, a new study by the Canadian Medical Association Journal has found.

Three hours of sitting next to a roaring, buzzing chainsaw punctuated by the occasional deafening blast of a jet taking off wouldn't be anyone's idea of a good time.

But that's the equivalent of what hockey fanatics endured during the Edmonton Oilers' Stanley Cup playoff run last spring, according to a study published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

The study found that the ears of fans, staff and players were subjected to dangerously high noise levels, enough to potentially cause hearing problems.

"You could tell just even in watching the games on TV that it was insanely loud," said Bill Hodgetts, the study's lead author and an assistant audiology professor at the University of Alberta.

After measuring sound levels once every second at three games during the final series between the Oilers and the Carolina Hurricanes, he determined just how insane those noise levels were — and what kind of hearing damage the racket could cause unwitting fans.

During the third game of the series, fans reached their maximum daily noise allowance in less than six minutes and they absorbed about 8,100 per cent of the top dose over the course of the game.

Fans don't think about the noise: study

Hodgetts said that meant fans subjected themselves to a noise level equal to a chainsaw buzzing a metre and a half away, while hometown goals prompted a spike in sound equal to a plane taking off.

"Of course you'd move yourself away from that environment if you were sitting next to a chainsaw, but in a hockey game you don't really think about it."

Even during intermissions, the noise was so loud that normal employees in other workplaces would be required to use hearing protection, the study's authors said.

"People always think about the workplace environment being something you should wear earplugs for, if it's a noisy environment, but nobody really thinks about leisure activities,"the studysaid.

Hodgetts said the study's co-author, Richard Liu, a medical doctor who studies hearing, acted as a guinea pig. He and his wife were tested before and after the games.

Hodgetts said they came out of the experience with mild ringing in their ears and temporary hearing loss of up to 20 decibels.

Liu also experienced a loss in sensitivity of the outer hair cells of the inner ears — cells that look like a wheat field blowing in the wind when responding to sound. They lie down when injured and can snap off permanently during extremely loud activities.

While he stressed the hearing loss was temporary, resolving itself in about eight to 16 hours, Hodgetts said repeated exposure could cause permanent damage.

That raises implications for season-ticket holders, arena workers and even hockey players themselves.

"It makes you wonder if people who go to every game, season's tickets holders, if they should be a little more concerned about getting a pair of earplugs."

Hodgetts said he met with Oilers forward Ethan Moreau, who said he hadn't experienced any of the classic signs of hearing loss, such as ringing or muffled sounds.

"He didn't report anything like that, he said it's not so bad on the ice," said Hodgetts, adding it's impossible to tell for sure without more study.

While Hodgetts said watching one super-loud hockey game won't cause permanent hearing loss, people should be aware of the danger. The combination of sporting events, rock concerts, cell phones and MP3 players can overwhelm ears.

However, he added, the problem can easily be corrected with cheap foam earplugs.

Hodgetts compared hearing hazards to something more widely recognized — health problems caused by smoking.

"Nobody would be excited to be the smokiest arena in all of Canada, or all of the NHL, but we're sure proud of being the loudest arena," he said.