How Do Vuvuzela Horns Cause Hearing Damage?

The vuvuzela, a stadium horn made popular by World Cup soccer fans in South Africa, may permanently damage the hearing of people within the vuvuzela's close proximity, including the horn-blower, according to a recent study.

The sound of the vuvuzela averages 131 decimals at the horn opening and 113 decimals at a 2-meter distance from the instrument, according to a study done at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. These noise levels are dangerously high, and they exceed international sound exposure limits set for occupational settings, the authors wrote.

What happens in the ears

Noise-induced hearing loss is irreversible because loud bursts of sound over prolonged periods of time can destroy the small and perhaps irreparable cells in the inner ear, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Within in the inner ear is a snail-shaped structure called the cochlea, which is filled with fluid and lined with cells called hair cells. Normally, sound waves in the air cause the fluid to vibrate, and as the fluid moves over the hair cells, it pushes the hairs this way and that, which triggers the hair cells to send signals to the brain.

But loud noises can break the tiny hairs of the hair cells. Because these cells are the sensory receptors for the auditory system and allow the ears to process sound, when they are injured, the ability to detect sounds is diminished.

The study also showed that soccer fans attending a Premier League soccer match in South Africa suffered noise levels peaking at 144.2 decimals during the nearly two-hour-long event. That level of sound is louder than what you'd hear standing 300 meters (984 ft) from a jet taking off, which is about 130 decibels.

Prolonged or regular exposure to such high noise levels poses a significant risk for developing permanent hearing loss, according to the authors.

At the World Cup

Listening to just one vuvuzela for seven to 22 seconds exceeded the typical levels permitted for noise at work and caused temporary hearing loss among spectators, the study showed. While the subjects' hearing loss wasn't permanent, attending just three to five events with these noise levels would be enough to cause lasting hearing damage, according to the CDC.

Another serious consequence of overexposure to the vuvuzela's shrill drone is tinnitus, a condition often described as a ringing in one's ears. Tinnitus may be persistent or go away after a few days, depending on the level of auditory damage.

The CDC recommends that all World Cup attendees, and anyone attending loud events or concerts, don hearing protectors such as ear plugs during the event. You know you're in a situation that may damage your hearing if you have to raise your voice to talk to someone who is an arm's length away.

While the vuvuzela has only recently become globally recognized thanks to this year's World Cup, the instrument originally premiered at South African football matches in the late 1980s, according to Philani Mabaso, spokesperson for Durban-based Premier Soccer League AmaZulu FC.

On top of posing a threat to soccer fans' ears, the instrument has also attracted criticism for botching communication between coaches and teams and for drowning out fans' singing in stadiums. But the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), which organizes the World Cup, stands firmly behind the plastic, brightly-colored, 2-foot-long noise-makers.

"I have always said that Africa has a different rhythm, a different sound," FIFA president Sepp Blatter said in a Twitter post. "I don't see banning the music traditions of fans in their own country."

While it does not seem that FIFA will be banning vuvuzelas anytime soon, the association does request that the horns not be blown during the national anthems and announcements.

This article was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.