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Curb that noise!

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Noise is hazardous to health.  In the festive season, let's be mindful of the harmful effects of this pervasive pollutants says Ronita Torcato

The music composer John Cage once asserted ‘Everything we do is music’.  Quite so. Like hard rock musicians who deliberately include loudness and dissonance in their songs,   there are “funsters” who celebrate noise particularly in the festive  season. And then, there are those who believe in binaries like: Music is Awesome, Noise is Awful.  Some mindfulness then about noise (making) would be in order in the festive season. Only think of the sensitive souls in ‘Amrika’ who use terms like “horrific torture” to describe the playing of children’s songs on repeat to Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Our  prisoners would enjoy the music. But we are like that only. Still, we do need noise restrictions! Do we have them? Yes, we do!

The Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules, 2000 stipulate that loudspeakers may be used only with the permission of the relevant authority. And that loudspeakers or public address systems or amplifiers cannot be used at night except in closed areas. Furthermore, it spells out consequences. Section 15 of the Act provides that any person contravening the provisions of the Act  will be jailed for a term which may extend to five years with a fine which may extend to one lakh rupees, or with both. In 2016, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) analysed the ambient noise level at 70 locations in Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Lucknow, and Mumbai. Only nine locations met both the daytime and night-time standards. So who cares! When was the last time the Rules were actually enforced?

Dr Sandeep Patil,  Chief Intensivist and Physician, Fortis Hospital, Kalyan, says the government authorities should issue guidelines to educate the public about pollution caused by crackers and promote the use of ‘Green crackers’ which do not contain harmful chemicals that cause air pollution. “Components in firecrackers can be replaced with others that are less dangerous and less harmful to the atmosphere.”

Dr K P Morwani, Director and Head-ENT Department, Hiranandani Hospital Vashi - a Fortis Network Hospital cites the example of  England, where noisy crackers with excessive fumes are prohibited in residential and thickly commercial areas. “One can burn the crackers in the open grounds that are at least 500m away from the residential or commercial areas. Noisy crackers should be allowed only for a few hours. Loudspeakers are not allowed to be used after 10:30 pm for any function; similarly, the government should make some law for crackers to be burnt for specific hours, say about two hours a day i.e 7pm to 9pm or 8m to 10 pm,” he says.

What the authorities here are already doing, to their credit, is clamping down on firecrackers, of foreign-origin, mostly, Chinese-made, which flood the markets at festival times courtesy Indian wholesalers. Bans are hard to enforce but the authorities have prohibited possession and sale of foreign crackers containing sulphur and sulphate since  they endanger lives  and harm the environment. In the last four years, the Customs authorities have confiscated firecrackers valued at Rs 106 crores and arrested the culprits.  Smoke is also a  byproduct of firecrackers and when inhaled, can lead to a number of respiratory problems. Asthmatic patients suffer most from respiratory attacks around Diwali. Air pollutants remain present in the atmosphere for several days after Diwali as well.  (According to WHO, more than 90% of the world’s children breathe toxic air  daily and up to one-third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution.)

Adjudicating on a plea seeking a complete  ban on the manufacture and sale of firecrackers, the Supreme Court ruled that  less polluting 'green firecrackers'  should be sold and set off during reasonable timings. The apex court also directed all states to explore the feasibility of community cracker bursting at festivals.

It would be even better if the Ministries of Health and Environment adopted anti-noise pollution initiatives and embarked on campaigns  to educate the public that discordant, loud noise is downright hazardous to health. Consider this: As many 3,447  people died due to firecrackers between 2005 and 2014, a dismal statistic higher than dengue casualties. Fireworks can create 140 decibels of noise Experts say noise in excess of 90 decibels can cause neurosis, nervous breakdowns, and  damage  hearing.

Dr Morwani points out that “noise exposure during Diwali is  for duration of two or three days and lasting for three to four hours. This is rarely responsible for permanent hearing impairment. On the other hand, the air pollution can be hazardous to people with chronic lung disease. A few patients can be allergic to fumes and may have persistent cough, going on for weeks to month. But  no one dies of acoustic trauma; people rarely die if exposed to excessive smoke or pollution, and those who die, already have pre-existing lung ailments.”

He cites the example of persons who may be  very close to a bomb explosion: “Some of them can be treated successfully with medical treatment, a  few  can suffer permanent hearing impairment. Occasionally, one can have a traumatic rupture of the tympanic membrane. But most of these  heal on their own, without any surgical interference. Amongst two or three percent of patients, it may not heal on its own, and can be corrected with a simple surgical procedure.”

But noise pollution can have extreme psychological and physiological effects.  Dr Patil says a  number of studies have proven that firecrackers can have severe effects in people with heart disease, respiratory or nervous system disorders. It can also create problems for people suffering from common cold and cough, as well as cause congestion of throat and chest. Noise pollution is also linked to restlessness, temporary or permanent hearing loss, high blood pressure, sleep disturbance, and even poor cognitive development in kids. While noise at and above 85 decibels can damage your hearing, fireworks can be loud and can exceed 140 decibels.”

Certainly, several scientific studies over the years have confirmed that exposure to high levels of sound can damage hearing. Studies from the mid to late 1990s show that 90% of coal miners have hearing impairment by age 52—compared to 9% of the general population. Nearly half of all construction workers have some degree of hearing loss. Loudness can also cause tinnitus, a ringing, buzzing, or clicking in the ears.

Psychology Today reports that the number one cause for hearing loss  is not age, it's noise. And though the elderly are at an even higher risk of further hearing damage caused by noise pollution, it can afflict even the young.  One of the greatest classical musicians, Ludwig van Beethoven,  began to go  deaf when he was only in his  mid-twenties, hindering his ability to communicate and work. And he continued to compose great music and play the piano without hearing a note!  By age 45, Beethoven went fully deaf.

The adverse effects of noise are not just confined to humans. Even animals are affected. Female frogs find it difficult to locate males from their calls, owls and bats are unable to locate  their prey. Dolphins and whales end up beaching themselves. Stressed-out dogs whimper and howl even more than they usually do at night.

Dr Patil says that the best way to keep Diwali celebrations safe and have fun is to avoid firecrackers. “Try and stay indoors, keep windows and doors closed. This is more important for pregnant women, newborns, kids, the elderly, and those with chronic conditions like asthma and heart disease. People suffering from asthma or bronchitis should take medicines regularly, especially during this time, to keep symptoms under control and prevent severe attacks. Asthmatic patients should always keep their inhalers handy and seek medical help in case of any sign of increased in breathlessness. Wear N-100 rated face masks—when stepping out of the home. Avoid exercising early in the morning and opt to exercise indoors."

Better urban planning can help in creating ‘No-Noise’ zones. Nature is exceedingly important  too. Trees can reduce atmospheric and noise pollution but what kinds of trees are more effective for the purpose is fodder for another story.

Short Takes

Diwali is meant to be a festival of light, not noise, so go easy with those firecrackers!

Noise pollution is linked to restlessness, temporary or permanent hearing loss, high blood pressure, sleep disturbance, and even poor cognitive development in kids.


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