June 17, 2010 -- If you can imagine what it sounds like to be surrounded by thousands of jackhammers for about 90 minutes straight, then you may be able to imagine what it's like to sit in a crowd full of vuvuzelas.
Experts say the ubiquitous, loud buzzing horns that have become part of this year's World Cup lore may be hazardous to fans' hearing.
Researchers from the University of Pretoria in South Africa recently measured the sound emitted from the plastic horn to be 131 decibels at its opening.
Sounds that intense, according to the researchers, put people at risk for noise-induced hearing loss.
"Levels as high as what this instrument is producing is unsafe for any prolonged exposure," said John Weigand, director of the audiology program at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York. He was not involved in the vuvuzela research.
That noise measurement is what's produced from one blow of one horn. Considering that a soccer match lasts at least 90 minutes and there are typically many, many vuvuzelas sounding off at once, the risk for developing hearing loss is greater.
"Any sporting event is loud, and then when you add all these horns, it's an additive effect," said Weigand.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's guidelines say that a safe level of noise exposure for 90 minutes is 102 decibels, meaning that by U.S. standards, workers exposed to noise as loud as the vuvuzela would require protective equipment.
Study subjects experienced a hearing loss after attending a soccer match in a South African stadium where there were numerous vuvuzelas being used.
"When somebody is exposed to loud noise over a long enough period of time, the early warning signs of a hearing loss are a ringing in the ears or a muffling of sounds," said Vic Gladstone, chief staff officer for audiology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. He was also not involved in the vuvuzela research.
"If an individual continues to expose themselves to loud noise, it can lead to a hearing loss," he said. The hearing loss may be temporary in some people and permanent in others.
No Plans for a Ban
Despite the potential danger, the World Cup's governing body, FIFA, says it will not ban the vuvuzela, considered to be a symbol of South African soccer.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter added to that by writing in a Twitter post, "I don't see banning the music traditions of fans in their own country. Would you want to see a ban on the fan traditions in your country?"
In response to the concerns about the noise, Mascincedane Sport, a company that trademarked the vuvuzela, told South Africa's Johannesburg Star that the company will soon make new vuvuzelas that are about 20 decibels quieter.
That's still very loud, so soccer spectators will have to take precautions to protect their hearing.
"If they can't control the source of the noise, they have to control it at their ear," said Weigand.
"The best thing to do is get properly fitted ear plugs," said Gladstone.
If that's not possible, the audiologists say any ear plugs are better than no protection at all.
"Even using foam ear plugs you can get in a pharmacy will be a great help. It's exponentially better than doing nothing," said Weigand.
Businesses Cash in on Hearing Risk
Reportedly, ear plug sales are on the rise at shops in the area, and an Irish company is marketing a one-minute therapy that promises to alleviate the temporary ringing in the ears brought on by exposure to the vuvuzela.
The company, Restored Hearing, said in a news release that that its therapy involves using a low hum that helps get the vibration-sensing hairs in the cochlea, or inner ear, back into their original positions.
It claimed that so far, the therapy has a 99 percent success rate.
Gladstone had his doubts: "I'm skeptical, because I'm not aware of any research that supports this."
Both hearing experts say that anyone who has been exposed to the intense vuvuzela sounds over an extended period of time should monitor any changes in their hearing.
"If anybody experiences ringing, muffled sounds or has trouble understanding people speaking they should see an audiologist within a reasonable period of time if these symptoms persist," said Gladstone.
"It's common to have ringing in the ears afterward, but if it doesn't resolve in more than 36 hours, they should definitely seek attention," said Weigand. "You only have two ears, and you should protect them," he added.