22/08/2016 2:17 PM IST | Updated 01/09/2016 9:40 AM IST

Could Noise Pollution Be Making Us Sick And Angry?


Last week, a person who hires out his Dolby music truck for weddings and other functions used a vacant plot near our house to test his equipment. The heavy dose of bass that he blasted from his truck towards our house made me sick to the core. It reminded me of a few years ago when I had gone to attend a friend's son's marriage in Mumbai. The drums were beaten so loudly that it caused palpitations in my heart and despite completely covering my ears with my palms, the noise caused me to suffer a momentary loss of hearing.

Noise-wise, India is one of the most polluted countries in the world.

Such loud music is a common occurrence in cities and small towns of India, more so during the various religious festivals such as Ganesh Chaturthi, Dassehra etc. This noise pollution is further exacerbated by firecrackers during Diwali and wedding festivities.

Noise-wise, India is one of the most polluted countries in the world. The data on sound pollution is scarce, but whatever little exists for India shows that in most cities the noise reaches dangerous levels.

Sound/noise levels are described in decibels (dB) with a logarithmic increasing scale and they double up with every 10dB increase. Thus, the loudness of sound at 40dB is twice that at 30dB.

The sound level of normal human conversation is between 40-50dB and that of a rock or loud music concert is on an average 140dB. Thus, rock music is approximately 500 times louder than human conversation!

Recent data shows that some Indian cities have noise levels greater than 75dB and in peak traffic the sound of horns blowing can reach a deafening 100-120 dB! Poor traffic sense, lax patrolling by police and bad roads exacerbate the problem.

Effects on health

Scientists have shown that all sound levels greater than 85dB are dangerous to human health. In the long run they damage hearing and increase the level of stress. Large-scale studies all over the world have shown that increased sound levels cause elevated blood pressure, loss of sleep, increased heart rate, cardiovascular constriction and changes in brain chemistry.

I believe that the increase in anger and aggression among people in cities is probably due to the noise pollution!

We hear sound through our ears where the pressure waves (sound) are converted into electrical signals that are processed in the auditory centres of the brain. However, when the sound is loud enough it also has the ability to pass through the human skull and reach the brain directly.

I believe that the increase in anger and aggression among people in cities is probably due to the noise pollution!

Various scientific studies worldwide have shown the effect of mechanical forces on the working of the brain. Under various mechanical stresses, brain chemistry gets altered, thus affecting neuronal communications and the general functioning of the brain. Loud noise vibrations passing through the skull can therefore easily affect the brain, the softest tissue in the human body. In some ways, the effect of very loud sound may be similar to head trauma injury.

Nature has evolved so as to take into account all the forces impinging on a body and I am sure that this pressure wave passing through the skull affects the brain directly. Music, which is a sound ultimately, affects humans profoundly. Great music lifts the mood, is a balm to the soul and can have a great effect on the well being of humans in the long run. We still are not sure how music affects the whole brain since the auditory centres occupy only a small portion of it. However sound vibrations creating mechanical stresses in the brain may provide an answer.

Similarly, "ugly and loud" sound may affect the whole brain and in the long run may have deeply detrimental effects on human health. Even music, which may be soothing at low volumes, becomes cacophonous when played loudly.

Loud music has the same detrimental effect on nerves as multiple sclerosis. It destroys the insulation of nerve cells which go from the ear to the brain. It is not necessary that only loud music heard in the open-air affects our health; even headphones with loud music has the same effect.

I feel the stress, foul mood and general aggressiveness one encounters in many people may have something to do with continuously being exposed to loud music. The young population which is constantly chatting or hearing music via headphones is very susceptible to this phenomenon.

Loud music has the same detrimental effect on nerves as multiple sclerosis.

Another way by which sound pollution affects our health is by creating sleep deprivation. Because of sound pollution at night, we do not get deep sleep. Studies world over have shown that without deep sleep the detoxification of the brain does not take place, thereby creating long-term stresses which affect all aspects of mental and physical health.

Studies have also shown that not only human but also animal health has been adversely affected by sound pollution. The beaching of whales and dolphins has been linked to sonar experiments during various military exercises in oceans around the world. Similarly, biologists have found urban noise pollution adversely affects the communication signals of songbirds.

What can be done?

The most important thing in fighting noise pollution is getting good data on it. Today there are innumerable sound-meter apps which can be downloaded on smartphones. This can make every person a mobile sound meter who can measure sound levels at any place.

Thus, wherever we go and find the noise levels too high we should record them on our smartphones and upload them to a suitable centralized site. This can very rapidly help create a sound- pollution map of the country.

Based upon this map, a good noise abatement legislation can be formulated with very strict laws to limit the sound levels. The Indian judicial system takes ages to bring to justice cases and thus a much faster mechanism needs to be developed to curb noise pollution. Maybe heavy fines on the spot will deter noise polluters.