“What?” I pulled out an earplug.
“Are you a journalist?” the lady to my left shouted.
“Oh yeah!” I shouted back.
A reader sent a question to Curious Wichita raising concerns about the noise level at Intrust Bank Arena, so my editor decided I should go investigate. The next concert on the calendar was “I Love the ’90s” with Salt-N-Pepa, Vanilla Ice and Coolio.
Awesome, I thought. That was my music growing up. I’ll be able to jam on the company’s dime.
An app on my phone recorded how loud it was, as the DJ led a contest to identify ’90s TV theme songs.
“Everybody make some noooooise!” shouted the DJ.
I was on a foldout chair in the middle of the arena, squeezed between two enthusiastic ladies on my left, who looked like they had gone for drinks beforehand, and the mother and daughter to my right who cheered in quiet solidarity.
“Crowd still coming in,” I scribbled on my notepad. “Will turnout be suppressed by rain?”
I looked down at the “Decibel 10” sound-meter application, which was registering decibels in the low-90s — high for ordinary life but low for a concert.
“Oh great,” I thought. “I’m going to write a story about the dangers of a noisy arena, and the rain has kept the crowd away. This is going to be a quiet disaster.”
Turn up the volume
Regardless of how loud Intrust was that night, scientists say the evidence is overwhelming: Loud noise is dangerous. And few people encounter noises louder than they do in an arena. But how dangerous is it and what you should do about it? And is it more dangerous for employees and children? The Eagle’s questioner wanted to know.
Fans can’t rely on the arena to keep them safe. “The arena itself doesn’t control the sound levels or where the speakers face,” said Christine Pileckas, marketing director for Intrust arena. “The tours travel with their own sound and light and control the direction they’re facing.”
So the volume at the Foo Fighters will not be the same as at a Christian rock concert. The Christian rock concert was even louder, several workers said. One employee told me she had seen parents at the Christian concert getting paper towels from the bathroom to stuff in their children’s ears.
Workplace regulations make it clear that employers are required to take preventative steps. At Intrust, the arena makes earplugs available.
Several workers told me that they didn’t wear their earplugs because it made it hard for them to communicate. This has been a problem in the military as well, where soldiers have sometimes risked hearing loss so they can communicate about more urgent risks.
Thousands of firefighters have successfully sued the manufacturer of fire engines for ear damage. It’s not because the sirens are loud – they’re supposed to be – but because the company didn’t do enough to funnel the sound away from the cab.
Companies that install sound systems have been sued, as have the Seattle Seahawks for the noise in their stadium, which at times has set off local seismographs that measure earthquake activity. Motley Crue has famously begun selling earplugs at all of its concerts to avert legal problems. But even the best lawsuits have produced settlements in the tens of thousands of dollars – not enough to scare touring acts into lowering the volume.
The courts have, so far, been treating hearing loss more like sun damage or tooth decay than smoking: It’s not the swimming pool’s fault you didn’t put on sunscreen, or the candy company’s fault you don’t floss. Only unexpected noise that could have been prevented is a liability.
That’s why a fan at a Justin Bieber concert recently sued for $9 million: When Bieber climbed into a heart-shaped metal gondola, he whipped “the crowd into a frenzy of screams by continuously waving his arms in a quick and upward motion,” the lawsuit said. And as the steel and aluminum heart passed over the crowd, it “acted as a sound conductor, creating a sound blast” that caused permanent damage, the Belieber argued in her lawsuit.
Hearing loss has become an obsession among aging baby boomers, who have seen some of their original rock ’n’ roll idols go deaf. Boomers were the first generation to pay to stand near amplified distortion louder than a jet plane.
The hearing aid industry is booming. The market is expected to reach about $7 billion in 2020 and keep climbing as the world’s population keeps growing and aging. In 2015 companies sold more hearing aids to U.S. civilians than to veterans for the first time. Rock concerts and other civilian loudness now rival gunfights and bombings in their destructive power.
But one fact isn’t widely understood: According to the best available evidence, and despite Jimi Hendrix, Metallica and Sonic Youth, Americans’ hearing has never been sharper.
“If you’re not here right now I don’t know what you’re doing, what are you doing with your life?” pondered Pierre Allan, who was wearing a clock around his neck, like Flavor Flav, and Harry Potter spectacles, just outside the arena floor by the bathrooms.
His blonde “sister,” Crystal, grabbed his arm and pulled him back inside the arena. It’s “very loud, I would say it’s a 1,000 max,” Allan told me as he was dragged away. “I would say it’s 500 … see you, man.”
I had already measured the sound in the back of the arena, which registered about the same volume as at the center of the arena: about 100 decibels, or about the same loudness as a tractor. Arenas are designed to sound good no matter where you’re sitting.
Hearing experts, including the Hearing Loss Association of America, say people should spend no more than 15 minutes without ear protection when the volume reaches 100 decibels. Some other hearing loss organizations are more generous and give people 30 minutes. After that, hearing can be damaged.
The concert was well into its second hour when I tested the volume by the stage near the speakers. Color Me Badd, a boy-band from the 1990s, had started singing its biggest hit, “I Wanna Sex You Up.”
“Ooooooooh, oooooh oooooh ooooh,” they crooned. “Come inside, take off your coat, I’ll make you feel at hooome.” Two members had put on a lot of weight since they were teen heartthrobs, at least 50 pounds. Now, close to the stage, you could see the sweat flying everywhere.
“Now let’s pour a glass of wine ’cause now we’re all alooone.”
I noticed that my whole body was vibrating next to the stage. None of my other measurements around Wichita had been this loud, including at Eisenhower airport next to planes that were taking off and landing. But the meter on my phone reached only 110 decibels.
“I’ve been waiting all night so just let me hold you close to meee ...”
Even though the volume did reach 110 decibels at times, for the most part it hovered between 100 and 105 decibels, not that much louder by the stage than in the rest of the arena.
An audiologist told me it was my sternum and ribs that were vibrating. Bones conduct low frequencies well and were jostling with the bass. That’s why our voices sound so annoying when we hear ourselves on tape: Our jawbones pick up low-frequencies, making our voices sound deeper than they really are. Expensive sound equipment will capture the variation in every pitch. But cheap sound meters, like the app in my phone, often register more of higher tones that people care about because those parts of our hearing are more easily damaged.
At 105 decibels, the fans in the front row, most of whom would be at the concert for more than four hours, had about 10 minutes at the start of the concert before, the audiologist told me, they should have left.
When hearing researchers first saw the results of their study, the largest longitudinal study to track hearing loss in the U.S., they thought there had to be some mistake, according to Howard Hoffman, a statistical expert and program director for epidemiology at the National Institutes of Health’s division on deafness and hearing loss.
Many had assumed that the loud noises of modern society would have irreparably torn asunder America’s eardrums.
Instead, the opposite was true: Between about 1960 and 2000, hearing had improved across the board, for young and old, black and white, men and women.
To understand why, you have to imagine your way back through the rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia for the past, and into its reality, Hoffman said. Most American workers used to work with loud machinery on farms or in factories, before there was awareness and mandatory ear protection.
That still didn’t explain how the hearing of 70-year-olds from 1960, who were born in the 1890s, had worse hearing than the 70-year-olds from the early 2000s, who had been born in the 1930s and 1940s. It may have been that general health was worse at the turn of the 20th century, he said, so diseases, malnutrition and untreated ear infections damaged their hearing on farms, even more than the factories and tractors did to later generations.
He could only speculate about the causes, he said, but the trend was clear: Americans today hear better than they ever have before.
But because hearing loss often occurs over long periods of time, the data from the early 2000s doesn’t yet give us a full picture of how the generation who grew up with Walkmans and Discmans would hear when they hit middle and old age.
I asked three workers at the arena before someone pointed me to a concession stand that sold $2 earplugs. The manager said I was the only one of the 5,000 attendees she knew of who had purchased them.
Earplugs could reduce the volume by 20 to 30 decibels, an audiologist told me, enough to listen for a full day to music that would otherwise be 105 decibels without any risk of hearing loss.
I’d never thought about wearing earplugs before. They were the texture of putty and shaped like candy corn. I didn’t know how to use them, but because they were so pliable I just shoved them in my ear canal. (It turns out the proper method is to twist them, stick them in your ear, and let the plug material expand into a seal.)
I didn’t notice a difference. Maybe I put them in wrong, I thought. I took one out, and the difference was profound: It was like my right ear was listening to music from speakers at a swimming pool while I did laps, and my left ear was dancing on top of the bar at a club.
I desperately wanted to get rid of them. I didn’t want to be swimming laps; I wanted to be at the party.
According to Ray Hull, an audiology professor of communication disorders at Wichita State, who has written a book titled “I Can Hear You, But I Can’t Understand a Word You Are Saying!,” everything he reads says the risk of hearing loss from noise damage is ever present.
He recently saw The Oak Ridge Boys, a country and gospel group, with his daughter, and figured he didn’t need earplugs. But at the concert he could tell the noise level exceeded 120 decibels.
“And you have about 50 seconds before you are at risk for permanent damage to your hearing, before you should leave,” Hull said. “That’s kind of scary.”
In order to understand how, you have to understand how the ear hears. Unlike the eye, which catches light and sends it up the optic nerve to the brain, the ear works kind of like a Rube Goldberg contraption.
The ear lobes are shaped to funnel the pulses of sound that human voices make into a narrow canal where it bumps into the ear drum.
It’s called an ear drum in part because it works a bit like the top of a musical drum: It’s a thin membrane (think skin with mucus inside) that vibrates with sound. Rather than send that signal directly to the brain, the sound begins its long journey by passing through the three tiniest bones in the body.
By the time the sound has passed from the first to the third link in the bone chain, the vibrations have transformed from the large surface area of the eardrum to a very small bone surface, increasing the pressure more than 20 times – imagine someone standing on top of you in a stiletto rather than a sneaker.
That air pressure then passes into the cochlea, a coiled structure that looks a bit like a snail when magnified, and which scientists always feel the need to straighten out in order to explain how it works.
A group of cells inside the cochlea are arranged like piano keys that get played in reverse, where the strings vibrate until the keys move.
When specific sound frequencies reach the cochlea, these cells jostle and disturb the most sensitive part of the ear: tufts of what are often called hairs but are technically stereocelia cells. In a group they look a bit like a sea anemone, but individually they look like a tuft of floating pencils attached at the base by a thin tip.
This is the problem. Ordinary wafting triggers an electrical impulse in the nerve cell beneath them that is passed along to the brain.
But when the noise is too loud, the cells that hold these swaying hairs get tired. The louder the noise is, the more the cells strain to hold it together and, like a small child trying to hold up a kite in strong wind, they begin to wear out.
Sometimes our hearing loss is just temporary: The cells have been worn down but, eventually, they receive enough fresh nutrients to rebuild, and a few weeks later, the ringing in our ears is gone and our hearing returns to normal.
But eventually the cells can’t get nutrients fast enough to hold onto the thin tips of the hairs, and they break off and die. The hairs farthest from the blood supply, which allow the cells to recover, are also cells that capture high pitches.
So people tend to lose the ability to hear high-pitched sounds first. When the elderly person across from you can’t hear you in a noisy room but can in a quiet one, it’s likely because he or she can’t hear the high pitches that give our words their specific texture.
The ear only has about 20,000 of these hair cells, and they don’t regenerate, so the stress you put them under when you are a teenager listening to loud music will affect how well you can hear your spouse’s toast at your retirement party.
The tradeoffs between the careless joys of youth and the aching pains of senescence don’t present themselves as clear choices, or all at once. Adulthood takes over in fits and starts.
I started flossing regularly after the dentist sent me a $600 bill for a deep cleaning. After my third car accident, I started checking my blind spots every time.
And recently I had, with some discomfit, registered that my girlfriend had been teasing me about how loud I turned up the Netflix.
I’ve been to probably 20 or 30 concerts and music festivals, and I took it as a badge of honor when I squeezed my way close to the stage.
But working on this story made me wonder: Was I on the way to becoming my father? “I can’t hear what you’re saying, can you come in here,” is a daily occurrence in my parents’ house. My sister said her conversations with him sometimes lose their intimacy because of his loud volume.
His hearing loss didn’t make sense: My parents barely listen to music, let alone go to concerts. And my dad has worked in front of a computer, not with machinery, for as long as I’ve known him.
So I called him. He was born in 1942 and worked on his family farm outside Kansas City, but he said the farm was far from town and didn’t have much advanced machinery, so most of his childhood was quiet. The occasional firecracker or older brother who took him hunting with a shotgun might have contributed, he said.
As an adult in the 1990s when he went to hear my brother’s heavy-metal garage band in Seattle, he said, he brought ear plugs.
Nothing else, I asked him? When he was younger, he said, he used to do acid at Muddy Waters concerts. Although perhaps he was staring a bit more vacantly, standing near loud speakers was, it turned out, something we’d shared. I’d only seen his long beard and psychedelic drugs in pictures.
One of the few vestiges of his hippie youth that hadn’t waned, was his conversion to Buddhism. It was while he was meditating at the age of 50 that he began to hear ringing in his ears.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m really progressing in my meditation, I’m beginning to hear the music of the spheres,’ ” he said. “I really thought it represented progress in my meditation, so I didn’t tell anybody, and it didn’t bother me. At that time it sounded vaguely like the wind in the trees at the farm, sort of a low hissing.”
A year later, at the doctor’s office, he read an article about tinnitus and realized that the soundtrack of his life was not a mark of his spiritual progress but the progression of age and accumulation of physical consequences.
None of his eight siblings has bad hearing, he said.
“No, they don’t,” I could hear my mom shouting in agreement from another room.
Loving it loud
As I left the concert after more than four hours, just before Vanilla Ice’s encore, I decided to do one more interview. A few millennials were waiting for their Uber outside. The downpour from earlier had turned into flashes of light and rumbling.
“The audio could have been a little bit better,” said Allison Shadwell.
Was this the volume victim I was looking for? “It was just a little fuzzy,” she said.
But what did she think of the volume?
“It was very loud,” she said. “It was great. I loved it. I had a great time.”
But was it worth it in the long run? Should Intrust and other arenas be doing more to ensure that more than one person buys earplugs?
The science wasn’t that straightforward. Loud noise causes permanent damage, but hearing can also recover. And overall our hearing has been getting better, even if our earbuds are doing us no good. The most definitive risks are from long, repeated exposures at work, not the occasional sonic blast. But for some people, sometimes, a single shotgun blast could make you deaf.
It reminded me of my doctor, who told me, when I smoked two cigarettes a day during my 20s, “Well, almost all the studies focus on people who smoke at least 10 cigarettes a day. So we don’t know for sure. But it’s probably bad.”
As I walked back toward my car in the pouring rain, a loud crack of thunder instantaneously followed a bright bolt of lightning, a sound which I knew now often registered above 120 decibels but had been recorded above 200 decibels.
Loud noise was something that I should be more conscious of in the future, I decided.
But as I hurried back to my car, soaking wet, it was the lightning, not the thunder, that I was afraid of.
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