On January 14 2010, a press note was released by the Ministry of Environment and Forests announcing an amendment to the Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules 2000, which should come as sweet music to many ears.

For the first time, noise level in India’s cities will be monitored by a national tracking agency. By September 2010, monitoring stations will be set up in seven cities: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata , Chennai , Hyderabad , Bangalore and Lucknow. Over the next two years, 18 other cities, mainly state capitals, will follow suit.

So what exactly is all the fuss about? How do we define noise in the first place?

It has been defined by experts as as “acoustic signals which can negatively affect the physiological or psychological well-being of an individual.” (Handbook of Hearing and the Effects of Noise, K.D. Kryter, New York Academic Press)

In simple language, noise is unwanted sound.

It is interesting to note the origin of the word “noise”. It comes from the Latin word nausea meaning seasickness.

However one man’s noise may well be another’s music, and here lies the dilemma. What is unacceptable to one may be perfectly acceptable, or even desirable, to another.

Be that as it may, it is a scientifically proven fact that noise levels above specific thresholds are physically and pyschologically injurious to health. This is measured in decibels (dB). The higher the decibel level, the louder the noise.

The chart below gives you an idea of decibel levels for commonplace sounds around you:

Painful

150 dB = rock music peak

140 dB = firearms, air raid siren, jet engine

120 dB = jet plane take-off, amplified rock music at 4-6 ft., car stereo, band practice

Extremely Loud

110 dB = rock music

106 dB = timpani and bass drum rolls

100 dB = chain saw, pneumatic drill

90 dB = lawnmower, power tools, trucks & other heavy vehicular traffic

Very Loud

80 dB = alarm clock, busy street

70 dB = busy traffic, vacuum cleaner

60 dB = conversation

Moderate

50 dB = moderate rainfall

40 dB = quiet room

Faint

30 dB = whisper, quiet library

The permissible noise level in residential areas according to Indian law is 55 dB. Most of us however live in areas with noise levels upto 20-25% beyond this.

Small wonder then, that noise is slowly inching up the political agenda.

Sounds louder than 80 dB are considered considered potentially hazardous. Warning signs that you are being exposed to hazardous noise include:

1. You must raise your voice to be heard.

2. You cannot hear someone two feet away from you.

3. Speech around you sounds muffled or dull after leaving a noise area.

4. You have pain or ringing in your ears (tinnitus) after the exposure.

According to WHO (World Health Organisation), upto 120 million people worldwide suffer from noise-induced hearing disability.

Activists compare the anti-noise pollution movement to the campaign against secondhand smoke a decade ago. Like secondhand smoke, they say, noise is not just an annoyance; it causes serious health problems. The air into which noise is emitted is a “commons”, a public good or resource which nobody owns, but in which everyone has a stake.

Both the amount of noise and the length of time you are exposed to the noise determine its ability to damage your hearing. Beyond a critical mass point, the damage eventually becomes irreversible. Sustained exposure to noise above 85 dB has been proven to cause permanent hearing loss.

If you think you have “gotten used to” the noise you are routinely exposed to, then most likely you have already suffered damage and have acquired a permanent hearing loss. Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is usually gradual and painless, but, unfortunately, permanent. Once destroyed, the hearing nerve and its sensory nerve cells do NOT regenerate. A sobering piece of news indeed. Noise affects both perpetrator and victim without discrimination. So those of us how persist in blaring music or using high-decibel vehicle horns are causing damage first and foremost to ouselves and to our own loved ones.

Ambient noise leads to an upward spiral. The noisier the surroundings, the louder one has to speak to be heard above it, contributing even further to the noise.

Apart from the obvious effect on hearing, are there other health hazards from noise? Most certainly!

· Noise makes it difficult to sleep, even after the noise stops, leading to insomnia

· Noise-related feeling of helplessness is a major contributor to depression and panic attacks.

· Noise can increase blood pressure

· It increases the probability of having a heart attack or stroke.

· It disturbs digestion, and can contribute to ulcers

· It can negatively impact a developing fetus, possibly contributing to premature birth

· Noise can also hamper performance of daily tasks, increase fatigue, and cause irritability.

· Noise can reduce efficiency in performing daily tasks by reducing attention to tasks. This is a concern of employers when it comes to assuring workers’ safety. It is also a concern to a growing number of educators interested in human learning

· Noise contributes to memory loss.

· Noise triggers the release of stress hormones, which have a cascade effect on the immune system and metabolism.

Noise adversely affects humanitarian interactions in society. In an experiment in the US, while a noisy lawnmower was running, a woman with a broken arm dropped some books and tried to pick them up. No one stopped to help her. When the lawnmower was turned off and the scene repeated, several people stopped to help her retrieve the books.

Parents of school-going children and college students, take note: In scientific studies, scholastic performance in academic institutions in quiet environs far surpassed those in noisy surroundings, other factors being equal.

Significantly, the Noise Pollution Rules stipulate a 100-metre zone of silence around schools, hospitals, courts etc. The latest amendment empowers local police to take tough measures against noise polluters. They can now take action against offenders without waiting for a complaint.

The effect of noise pollution on wildlife and the environment is a whole other subject beyond the scope of this article

All this evidence is changing the old way the world regards the problem of noise. No longer is there a ‘let and let live’ approach, and the attitude that “only fussy old people complain about noise” is long gone.

The source of most outdoor noise worldwide is transportation systems, including motor vehicle, aircraft and rail noise. In India, this is compounded by high-decibel horns, vehicle-reversing warning indicators, and loud vehicular stereo systems. Our own state is no exception. Indeed, the menace is evergrowing, and it is increasingly difficult to find a quiet zone anywhere, even in areas previously noted for this.

Those of us who happen to live on either bank of the picturesque Mandovi are subjected to a daily barrage from the pleasure cruises that ply every evening, throughout the year, from 5.30 pm, often beyond the 10 pm limit, and with decibel levels far higher than the prescribed 55 dB.

To the list can be added ministerial sirens, mobile phone ringtones and music devices.

Festivity-related noise is another menace. The new amendment casts upon each State the duty to notify in advance “the number and particulars of days, not exceeding fifteen in a year”, on which a 2-hour exemption (10 pm- 12 midnight, not beyond) would be allowed. It is significant to observe that there is no laxity in decibel levels on these occasions.

So what can we do about noise pollution?

1. Well, one very important piece of information is that the law is actually on your side. Take a look at just two of the several cases that ruled in favour of the individual:

a) On the use of multi-toned electric horns which produce a shrill discomforting sound, the Calcutta High Court held that the State authorities should strictly implement the Motor Vehicles Act 1988 and ban the use of such horns and impose fine wherever necessary [Rabin Mukherjee v. West Bengal, AIR 1985 Cal 222].

b) In Sayeed Maqsood Ali v The State of M.P. [Air 2001 M.P. 220], it was held that even a single individual can maintain a writ petition against noise pollution. A dharamsala operating near the residence of a cardiac patient was ordered to limit noise levels resulting from its operations.

2. Taking control of the situation, whether it is giving vent to your feelings through a verbal request or a written complaint, can help decrease the sense of helplessness you may feel.

3. Spend quality time in quiet places. This is getting increasingly difficult to do, as safe havens from noise shrink in area.

4. Protect yourself. For your own health and that of your loved ones, pump down the volume. Here’s a piece of news for party animals: Mixing loud music with smoking and drinking alcohol compounds the damage to your hearing mechanism.

5. Other measures that can help you cope include relaxation techniques, or involving yourself in something absorbing and enjoyable, such as a hobby or reading or watching something gripping.

A heartening development was the recent initiative of Mumbai Police to observe No Honking Week beginning on World Health Day (April 7). In the first year of this initiative, Mumbai Police fined over 6000 motorists for indiscriminate and unnecessary honking. The city was noticeably quieter.

It would be a blessing if our own Traffic Police took up such an initiative. Horn NOT OK Please!

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Herald Goa India in February 2010)

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