Race to the Chase, but Protect Your Hearing

For race fans heading to Texas Motor Speedway in November for the AAA Texas 500, the list of things to bring seems pretty straightforward. After all, the speedway even offers a whole race fan checklist that includes the obvious — the tickets — and the often forgotten, like sunscreen or a rain poncho.

But perhaps the most important item is one your doctor recommends — ear protection. A recent National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health study found that the decibel level at your typical NASCAR track can reach 130 or higher in the pit area, 114 for the drivers, and 96 for the spectators.

The agency says that 85 decibels is the recommended maximum exposure limit. The threshold of pain, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDOCD), is 125 decibels. At 85 decibels, hearing damage begins to occur.

Earlier this year, racing veteran Richard Petty revealed he wears two hearing aids after years of sustained exposure to the loud noises of the racetrack. Without them, he told the Florida Times-Union, he is deaf.

According to Elton Sawyer, NASCAR Camping World Truck Series managing director, common sense should prevail for everyone at a race — from the pit crew to the spectators.

“If these cars didn’t make the noise, you really couldn’t appreciate the power involved,” he said. “Engines cranking [725] horsepower are just supposed to be loud. To me, if everyone uses common sense and protects their ears, there isn’t a problem.”

“Tom Gideon, NASCAR director of safety for research and development, uses foam ear plugs and a headset,” the article added.

But how loud is 130 decibels?

“Another way to look at this is that a driver’s noise dose was 50-900 times higher than the allowable occupational daily noise dose,” the Centers for Disease Control wrote recently. “Race team members receive 12 to 21 hours of intensive noise exposure every week up to 40 consecutive weeks and more during the off-season. Spectators are exposed to a noise dose that is two to ten times higher than a person working a 40-hour week at the maximum allowable limit of 85 dBA.

“For comparison, the decibels in a NASCAR car or pit often get to 130, while a Boeing 747 engine produces around 125 during takeoff,” Shelly D. Hutchins of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association said. “However, the FAA requires people working on airport tarmacs to wear hearing protection.”

So what kind of protection is most effective? “Any ear protection is better than nothing,” said Allis Cho, M.D., an ear, nose and throat specialist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Arlington Memorial. “But it depends on how loud the event is. For concerts and such, just ear plugs may be fine. But if you’re going to shoot guns or go to a NASCAR event that’s super loud, you may want ear plugs and [noise-canceling] ear muffs.”

Without that ear protection, sustained exposure to the sounds of loud racing engines can result in noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL. According to the NIDOCD, this hearing loss can happen quickly. “The louder the sound, the shorter the amount of time it takes for NIHL to happen,” the organization warned.

Signs that you may have sustained some hearing damage, Cho said, can include a ringing in the ears. “Besides hearing loss, you can have tinnitus (which is when you hear ringing sounds in your ear, but it can also be roaring or cricket sounds),” she said.  “Some people just feel like their ear is stopped up.”

And once that hearing loss has happened, it likely won’t ever come back.

“Usually hearing loss from nerve damage cannot be repaired. Once the nerve is injured, it’s gone,” Cho said. “There is another type of hearing loss that is conductive that can be repaired, but you have to get a hearing test to find out which kind of hearing loss you have.

“Conductive hearing loss is usually from some sort of blockage that prevents sound from getting to the nerve (such as ear wax, fluid or pressure in the middle ear, or eardrum perforation).”

If you think you’re suffering from NIHL or age-related hearing loss, a trip to the doctor can confirm it.

“Go to your ENT and get an audiology exam,” Cho said. “If you’ve had a hearing test before, bring those results with you so they can compare and see if your hearing is worse.”

But prevention is the best course — and with the right hearing protection at a race, you’ll still be able to hear your coworkers the next day.

Need an ENT? Head to the Texas Health Resources’ physician finder or call 1-877-THR-WELL.

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