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Vuvuzelas: What’s the Buzz?

Categories: Hearing Loss, Sports and Entertainment

World Cup fans buzzing on vuvuzelas

Photo courtesy of South African Tourism

They have been compared to a heard of stampeding elephants, the drone of a thousand bees, or the sound of a goat being dragged to slaughter—and they are the latest craze at the World Cup. The vuvuzela, a plastic, meter-long South African horn sanctioned by FIFA as part of the “signature South African World Cup” has drawn criticism for disrupting the games, interfering with broadcasts, and potentially impairing spectators’ hearing.

A study published in the South African Medical Journal found that the actual sound output created by the vuvuzela reached dangerously high levels, averaging 131 decibels, A-weighted (dBA) at the horn opening and 113 (dBA) at a 2-meter distance from the vuvuzela. Eight of the 10 study participants experienced peak sound pressure levels that exceeded 140 (dB) with a maximum peak level reaching 144 (dB). As a comparison, a jet engine at takeoff measures 130-140 (dB). Additionally, the study found significant changes in participants post-match hearing thresholds and cochlear responsiveness. These results led the researchers to recommend hearing protection for football match spectators.

Fans are lucky to attend a game or two, but what about the players, event staff, stadium workers, broadcasters and referees who are repeatedly exposed to the noise? These levels exceed most national and international standards on permissible exposure limits. NIOSH recommends that noise exposures not exceed 85 (dBA) over an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) and 140 (dB) for any period of time. For instance, at the 2-meter distance, a person can’t be exposed to more than 45 seconds per day at the 113 (dBA) level. The noise levels described in the South African study are most likely to be exceeded by 5-10 (dBA) when we consider the thousands of vuvuzelas being blown simultaneously at an actual football/soccer match. Hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) are possible and serious consequences of this overexposure, and they can interfere with communication and our quality of life. Some teams are calling for a ban and the executive of the tournament’s local organizing committee warned “that the plastic horns could be banned if fans don’t show more respect in their bugling.” Additionally, the company that provides the broadcasting feed for the World Cup is doubling its audio filters to reduce the noise and disturbance created by the horns (AP 6/16/10). However, vuvuzelas continue to be allowed and they still present a major hearing hazard for spectators, players, and stadium workers alike. Like the South African researchers, we would encourage the use of hearing protection in stadiums that continue to allow vuvuzelas.

The controversy about the use of the noisy vuvuzelas highlights some of the hearing hazards that can be encountered at sporting events and that can contribute to hearing loss or tinnitus. A recent paper from NIOSH looked at noise exposures in stock car racing. The study found that that noise levels on three race tracks exceeded those measured in many hazardous industrial environments. Personal exposure measurements exceeded the NIOSH recommended exposure limit of 85 dBA as an 8-hour TWA in less than a minute for one driver during practice, within several minutes for team members, and less than one hour for spectators during the race. NIOSH also found similarly high levels of noise at monster truck events, concerts and clubs.

Throughout all aspects of our daily lives, we need to better identify dangerous levels of noise and take appropriate actions to reduce and control unwanted exposures. For more information about hearing loss, visit the NIOSH noise and hearing loss prevention topic page.

Mr. Kardous is a research engineer in the NIOSH Division of Applied Research and Technology.

Dr. Morata is a research audiologist in the NIOSH Division of Applied Research and Technology.

References

Swanepoel de W, Hall JW 3rd, Koekemoer D. Vuvuzela sound measurements. S Afr Med J. 2010 Mar 29;100(4):192

Swanepoel D, Hall JW III, Koekemoer D. Vuvuzela – good for your team, bad for your ears. S Afr Med J 2010; 100: 99-100

Kardous CA, Morata TC [2010]. Occupational and Recreational Noise Exposures at Stock Car Racing Circuits: An Exploratory Survey of Three Professional Race Tracks. Noise Control Eng J 58(1):54-61

NIOSH [1998]. Health Hazard Evaluation and Technical Assistance Report: the Crown, U.S. Hot Rod Monster Truck and Motocross Show, Cincinnati, Ohio: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Center for Disease Control, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH HETA Report No. 98-0093-2717

Public Comments

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

  1. June 17, 2010 at 2:57 pm ET  -   Mike Slater

    Another example of where exposure to potentially damaging levels can occur during leisure activities. And where leisure industry workers are at risk of hearing damage.

    Link to this comment

  2. June 17, 2010 at 5:37 pm ET  -   Anonymous

    wear appropriate hearing protection, I do at my job everyday!

    Link to this comment

  3. June 17, 2010 at 5:37 pm ET  -   Dr. Ramzi Ismail

    I wonder if the same results apply to watching the world cup on TV. The buzz is there even when the volume is turned down.

    Link to this comment

    • AUTHOR COMMENT June 21, 2010 at 12:57 pm ET  -   Chuck Kardous and Thais Morata

      Our concern are the high noise levels that are emitted from these horns and their effect on the hearing of workers and fans. TV audience around the world have expressed their frustration and annoyance about the vuvuzelas’ persistent “hum” that often drowns the announcers the referees’ whistle, but fortunately, home watchers have the luxury of turning down the volume or muting the TV.

      Link to this comment

  4. June 19, 2010 at 9:22 am ET  -   Bob Willson

    Just when we thought there had been some education about harmful noise levels. I suppose they’ll listen to a repeat of the game on their iPods!

    Egads!! There is a sports supply company here in North Carolina that is selling out as soon as they get them in.

    Link to this comment

  5. June 21, 2010 at 9:31 am ET  -   Anonymous

    I wish someone would look at exercise classes where the music is blearing….for motivation. Healthy exercises for the body and very hard on the ears. You can’t walk into any YMCA class without the music being very loud.

    Link to this comment

    • AUTHOR COMMENT June 21, 2010 at 4:27 pm ET  -   Chuck Kardous and Thais Morata

      A few studies have been conducted abroad and they confirm your observations that music in fitness classes can be very loud. This exposure can cause the instructors to raise and hurt their voices. Temporary auditory effects, such as tinnitus and temporary hearing shifts have been detected among participants. Improving the acoustics of fitness rooms and turning the volume down would be beneficial not only for the class participants but particularly to the instructors.

      Link to this comment

  6. June 22, 2010 at 2:50 am ET  -   Vorarlberger Nachrichten Luagr

    Vuvuzelas are not as annoying as most live commentators, and “the sound of south africa” allows you to meditate on a different level…

    Link to this comment

  7. June 22, 2010 at 9:12 am ET  -   Anonymous

    Good thing that the awareness is at least out on the subject in SA. Its so controversial and emotional that the media has had a blast carrying the story.

    Link to this comment

  8. June 29, 2010 at 1:51 pm ET  -   Chris

    This Vuvuzelas issue should have been prevented prior to the allowed manufacturing of the items. However, and like always companies are just thinking about their profit and forgets the people’s suffering in the long runs.

    Where was the safety inspector/QA inspector during the approval and testing?

    Link to this comment

  9. June 30, 2010 at 4:46 pm ET  -   Anonymous

    It would be interesting what the sound pressure levels are on the field. You would think that if it was that high, players would complain that they couldn’t communicate with one another. That might suggest that those most at risk are the employees in the stands working day to day and given the data presented, hearing protection would likely be mandatory if this was in the U.S. Thanks Chuck and Thais for a wonderful case study.

    Link to this comment

  10. July 1, 2010 at 11:42 am ET  -   Anonymous

    Anyone know what frequencies are emitted? It might help determine speech interference or even how damaging the sound is, especially if they are within the human voice range.

    Link to this comment

    • AUTHOR COMMENT July 1, 2010 at 2:04 pm ET  -   Chuck Kardous and Thais Morata

      The vuvuzelas’ fundamental frequency has been measured to be around 230 Hz with several harmonics occurring at multiples of 230 Hz so speech intelligibility is definitely an issue as well. Many TV broadcasters attempted to design and implement filters targeted at the first few frequencies with the highest energies, mainly to address the annoyance complaints from their audience.

      Players have made several complaints to the organizing committee about the vuvuzelas interfering with their on the field communication but no action has been taken to limit their use, at least during the 2010 World Cup.

      Link to this comment

  11. July 6, 2010 at 1:15 am ET  -   B. H. Hansen

    Part of the issue of the vuvuzela is anthropological; it is ingrained in South African sports culture. To restrict it’s use is akin to restricting the “end zone dance” of the NFL. Removing them would be like removing an integral part of the game. There should however, be requirements placed on venues where they are permitted; posted notifications, inexpensive but effective hearing protection be provided, etc. Most automotive racing events (CART, IMSA, SCCA, etc) offer effective foam “ear plug” protection to patrons. Perhaps that is an option here as well. It seems to me that a basic parametric or graphic equalizer would be able to at least reduce the offending frequencies from the audio feeds.

    Link to this comment

  12. July 6, 2010 at 3:21 pm ET  -   D. Alexander

    vendors in the stadiums are selling foam earplugs for about 10 Rand (USD $0.80) but even wearing ear plugs still does not meet hearing protection recommendations.

    Link to this comment

  13. July 8, 2010 at 2:31 am ET  -   B. W. Hansen

    As most stadiums resemble parabolic reflectors, would the shape concentrate or reflect the sound waves at center-field? Goal area? Stands? (The article isn’t specific as to measurement methods, equipment, location, etc. Just curious.) This may have zero-bearing on SPL TWA levels but also be dramatic. The horn shape is semi-exponential (a long period of narrow throw before horn flare) and would (logically, anyway) be quite directional. Merely standing slightly off-axis may drop pressures significantly. I have never studied a vuvuzela; never been in the stands during a match, never blown one, no nothing of the dynamics involved. I’ve only heard one blown a while ago, and all I remember is I thought it was a good thing that it’s human-powered; they can only be blown for so long before the blower has to breathe.

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  14. July 8, 2010 at 2:59 am ET  -   David James

    Okay, first of all, you need a bit more than that, and the vuvuzelas are closer to 230Hz than 235 — they’re flat, not sharp.

    You need to do the first six or seven harmonics — just doing the first two isn’t going to cut it unless you spread your Q extra-wide. And you can’t do this for live TV without permanently screwing your 5.1 audio, hence why ESPN isn’t doing it. But we can do it on our own, given that we don’t mind losing surround sound.

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  15. July 8, 2010 at 5:46 pm ET  -   Mike Horowitz

    Years ago for OSHA I monitored TWA noise exposures of 3 paramutual clerks at a county fair: 82, 82 and 84 decibels TWA from exposure solely to crowd noise bouncing off the concrete stands. No vuvuzelas or noisemakers. Employer was cited for failure to monitor, but judge threw it out, as 85dbA TWA had not been exceeded. I believe there are many entertainment venues where workforce and consumers are overexposed, but this is overlooked and unobserved for the most part.

    Link to this comment

    • AUTHOR COMMENT July 12, 2010 at 12:37 pm ET  -   Chuck Kardous and Thais Morata

      Thank you for your comment. In the US, many workers who are employed in sporting, music, or entertainment venues are not usually afforded the same protections from noise exposures that are typically provided to workers in industrial settings. Both employers and workers seem to accept that excessive noise exposures are just part of the job and unless that changes, nothing much can be done to reduce exposures or protect workers.

      Link to this comment

  16. July 14, 2010 at 1:15 am ET  -   Rakhmat Soebekti

    It is a serious health hazard for not only hearing function, but also psychological hazard.

    Link to this comment

  17. July 26, 2010 at 2:31 am ET  -   Tracey at Transportable Homes

    Permanent damage has been done by the vuvuzelas as far as a friend of mine is concerned. His ears are still ringing!

    Link to this comment

  18. August 6, 2010 at 9:33 pm ET  -   Kara Jackson

    The vuvuzelas were so annoying! I couldn’t even watch the games, unless they were on mute this year. I cannot imagine sitting at the actual games, unless I had earplugs in my ears. I hope that game watchers will not have to deal with permanent hearing damage because of this!

    Link to this comment

  19. August 12, 2010 at 10:32 pm ET  -   anubhav kapoor

    There is no easy way of saying it but the fact remains that preventing hearing-related damage is the only way to get through such events. It is hard for the organizers or for the most sympathetic of tournament collaborators to actually take care of the noise levels at global-scale events like a World Cup. Those like me who use hearing aids can ensure that they approach venues with a reputation for being loud with an extra set of aids sourced from a provider like (name removed) that has a long listing of hearing aids across a wide price range..besides this there is little that seems practical to implement.

    Link to this comment

  20. September 2, 2010 at 4:47 am ET  -   lauradee6911

    Damages has been already done and cannot be solve :(

    Link to this comment

  21. December 21, 2010 at 9:11 am ET  -   William Murphy

    Here is a link to research recently published in Noise and Health on Vuvuzelas. Ramma L, Petersen L, Singh S. Vuvuzelas at South African soccer matches: Risks for spectators’ hearing. Noise Health [serial online] 2011 [cited 2010 Dec 21];13:71-5. Available from: http://www.noiseandhealth.org/text.asp?2011/13/50/71/73995

    Link to this comment

  22. May 25, 2011 at 4:14 pm ET  -   SoccerFan

    Soccer is the best game in life.Thanks for post
    Brendon

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  23. October 13, 2011 at 6:12 pm ET  -   Acne Cures

    Man those things were a pain in the Butt!! you could hardly hear the commentators on TV. I even head some poor spectator say she couldn’t hear a thing at the game she was at!

    In New Zealand workers in stadiums and such are not provided with noose reduction/dampening equipment like in other industries.

    Link to this comment

  24. November 21, 2011 at 7:31 pm ET  -   Clarion CX 501

    I lost full hearing in my left ear in a basement bar because the sound guy was deaf and had it up waaaay too loud. I wish I could go back to that day and leave before it happened.

    Link to this comment

  25. February 10, 2012 at 6:02 am ET  -   Bobby Jones

    Vuvuzelas as so irritating and they’re ruining the games atmosphere! My ears were ringing for days after the game I hope nobody has suffered any permanent damage to their ears!

    Bob Jones
    Product Researcher

    Link to this comment

  26. July 1, 2012 at 7:30 am ET  -   Austin Transmission

    Some teams are calling for a ban and the executive of the tournament’s local organizing committee warned “that the plastic horns could be banned if fans don’t show more respect in their bugling.

    Link to this comment

  27. January 21, 2014 at 9:29 am ET  -   Patricia Ambrosio

    Nice blog and I really liked it

    Link to this comment

  28. February 1, 2014 at 6:18 am ET  -   Garold

    I wish someone would look at exercise classes where the music is blearing….for motivation. Healthy exercises for the body and very hard on the ears. You can’t walk into any YMCA class without the music being very loud.
    Garold Walker

    Link to this comment

    • February 3, 2014 at 1:40 pm ET  -   Chuck Kardous and Thais Morata

      Unfortunately, this is a common problem at fitness centers; check out this recent study that looked at risk of hearing problems from selected leisure activities such as fitness classes: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22976343. Instructors in particular could be at risk for voice problems, and hearing problems like tinnitus. The recommend exposure limit for those who work 8-hour days in noise is 85 decibels. This is also an awareness issue. You may try to download a sound measurement app to your smartphone to get an idea of the sound levels, and bring it to the attention of the fitness center management. If that doesn’t work, you may want to consider using some earplugs. We wrote more about music at http://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2011/01/25/music/

      Link to this comment

  29. February 14, 2014 at 6:31 am ET  -   Habib Faruk Himel

    Not just the players, staffs, stadium workers, broadcasters and referees, even we people who watched 2010 FIFA World Cup in TV, also were the victim of the noise. When watching matches of world cup on TV, I used to lower the volume. And you know without much sound, there is NO feeling of the match. It was really bad experience for me. Let’s hope NO vuvugela in 2014 FIFA World Cup and NO other equipment that can make serious noise.

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  30. February 15, 2014 at 4:18 am ET  -   Ochena Bikel

    After the 2010 FIFA World Cup, some small plastic companies started to make vuvuzelas and distributed to other countries. This created a noisy environment around the world where vuvuzelas were found. All I can hope to see no vuvuzela in this FIFA World Cup 2014

    Link to this comment

  31. March 26, 2014 at 8:40 am ET  -   jose mik

    The vuvuzelas were so annoying! I couldn’t even watch the games, unless they were on mute this year. I cannot imagine sitting at the actual games, unless I had earplugs in my ears. I hope that game watchers will not have to deal with permanent hearing damage because of this!

    Link to this comment

  32. June 3, 2014 at 5:27 pm ET  -   Erik

    A few studies have been conducted abroad and they confirm your observations that music in fitness classes can be very loud. This exposure can cause the instructors to raise and hurt their voices. Temporary auditory effects, such as tinnitus and temporary hearing shifts have been detected among participants. Improving the acoustics of fitness rooms and turning the volume down would be beneficial not only for the class participants but particularly to the instructors.

    Link to this comment

    • June 10, 2014 at 4:37 pm ET  -   Chuck Kardous

      Thank you for the excellent comments, NIOSH always advocates for noise controls to limit noise levels.

      Link to this comment

  33. August 18, 2014 at 8:50 am ET  -   adam

    It is a serious health hazard for not only hearing function, but also psychological hazard.

    Link to this comment

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