A recent New York Times article on the toxicity of Delhi’s air not only set the cat among the pigeons but compelled the Hindustan Times (a daily) to print a series of reports on it’s front page emphasizing the same. The Times quotes a remarkable study commissioned by Central Pollution Control Board; which then sat over the conclusions drawn by the investigators for more than half a decade. The study assessing lung functions in almost 6,000 Delhi school children from 36 schools (begun in 2002) found that 44% suffered from poor or restrictive lungs, and that 10-27% of them complained of headache, eye irritation, nausea, palpitation and fatigue. The Times correspondent decided enough was enough when he found that his little boy had developed full blown severe asthma necessitating hospitalization.
The situation is nothing short of astounding; for more than 2 decades, air quality in Delhi has been rapidly decreasing because of vehicular emissions, garbage burning in the open, and industrial pollution without any murmur of the slightest protest by it’s inhabitants. Delhi is now considered the most polluted city in the world with particulate matter more than 17 times the upper limit. Almost every one in the media has suddenly woken up to the dreadful fact and is completely focused on pulmonary ramifications without any attention to cardiovascular complications of air pollution.
The politicians have wisely kept themselves out of the grim haze but will now finally have to take a stand; for infinitely more people will die of pulmonary and cardiac complications of foul air than all the wars that India has put together; and I do not mean post independence. We are applying the most conservative estimate looking at more deaths and far greater self sustained morbidity than can be imagined. We as a community have willfully brought it upon our children and ourselves.
But in the current din of air toxicity another equally lethal urban pollution has been completely ignored. The community center near my residence is a constant reminder of the cumulative dangers that the neighborhood constantly faces. The community center among other functions hosts wedding parties that invariably begin late in the night. The groom’s party approaches the venue as late as possible in order to establish their delusional self-importance, but worse with maximum thunder and lightening. There have been numerous occasions when the screeching noise pretending to me loud music has actually made almost windows of my home vibrate in anguish. When I mentioned this to a neighbor, she retorted, “ forget windows; my entire body vibrates with discomfort.”
You certainly cannot stop weddings, nor can you complain if the groom chooses to trot in at midnight, but he and his party must be considerate that there are people trying to sleep in their homes; there would be children who have to get up for school the next morning, senior citizens battling chronic diseases such as heart attacks or diabetes, and ordinary women and men eking out an existence in a dirty polluted toxic metropolis.
If its not a wedding then it could be a musical program that begins after 10 pm and goes on till almost dawn in midweek at noise levels that would embarrass the loudest discotheque or night club. The music and singing is loud enough to be suffered miles away. Sheer agony for the people cursed enough to be living in the vicinity. It is the same situation with religious functions that belt out gratingly garish spiritual noise the entire night as if the Gods were stone deaf; this despite being repeatedly told in the scriptures that the Almighty resides within us. I do not write about the car honks, the aeroplanes that fly overhead and the screaming of tires as vehicles negotiate the narrow streets of a Delhi residential neighborhood.
The noise and sounds are endless in this city and over the years have gone louder and louder but there is absolutely no concern expressed by any public member. Noise has become the MSG (monosodium glutamate) of our existence. The louder the din the more intellectual you are considered; the shriller the response on TV the wiser you become.
We have not only successfully made Delhi the most air-polluted city in the world, but we also must be the loudest city on the planet. The worrying fact we refuse to acknowledge as a people the hazards of the noise we are voluntarily producing at our own peril. We ironically set out to teach the world the salutatory effects of meditation with it’s accompanying quietness. The nation is posed to celebrate ‘Yoga Day’ on 21st June 2015 without a pause on the noise that we generate night and day. Why does the politician look away from the filthy air? Because he knows it is now too late to reverse the grand process of industrialization and the ‘Make in India’ road map. He cannot stop mining of coal and likewise he cannot curb coal-based industries. The politician cannot stop trucks (spewing out diesel/petrol fumes) from penetrating and dissecting the innards of Delhi city in the dead of night; the tantalizing result is that the air in the city is worse at dawn when those solitary poor folks with some health sense get up for their walk or jog. Less said of the Babus.
It’s a double whammy on the folks of Delhi by any standards. But now for the grim part; more than ample evidence has emerged that not unlike long-term particulate matter air pollution, long term high ambient noise levels too independently accelerate atherosclerosis. In plain English both air pollution and noise arte capable of blocking your arteries, together and individually. Numerous studies have reported that high residential traffic exposure is associated blockage of coronary arteries as also the large arterial conduits , along with narrowing of the microvasculature. The Heinz Nizdorf Recall Study published last year in the European Heart Journal concluded that long term exposure to fine particulate matter air pollution and night-time traffic are both independently associated with atherosclerosis as assessed by CT scans. The authors in fact state that their data is robust enough to consider noise as a risk factor for atherosclerosis. They also found that unlike air pollution that particularly affects the young and people with coronary heart disease more, nocturnal noise damaged every one regardless of age or underlying disease.
Acute noise exposure in laboratory settings and in real-life environment increases heart rate, blood pressure and cardiac output. These acute effects are seen not only by loud noise but also at relatively low environmental noise levels when concentration, relaxation or sleep is disturbed. The stress of noise elicits the sympathetic responses (Fight-flight reactions) as well as release of corticosteroids. These responses do not need the involvement of the cortical brain (cognitive perception of noise) but operates at subcortical levels. Acute or chronic sleep restriction, or fragmentation of sleep has been associated with reduced insulin sensitivity, changes in appetite regulating hormones, increase in sympathetic tone and venous endothelial dysfunction. Epidemiological studies have reported habitual short sleep (< 6 h per night) is associated with obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and mortality.
The health burden of environmental noise has been summarized by the World Health Organization (WHO) in terms of disability-adjusted life years (the number of years lost due to disability or death; a measure combining morbidity and mortality. The WHO estimates that in Western Europeans- annually 45,000 years are lost due to noise-induced cognitive impairment in children, 903,000 due to noise-induced sleep disturbance, and 61,000 due to noise induced cardiovascular disease and 22,000 due to tinnitus. Additionally noise-induced annoyance causes 587,000 disability-adjusted life years lost in Western European population. There is no data currently on Indian populations.
Quite a few studies have shown association of chronic noise and myocardial infarction. Chronic noise levels have been shown to increase myocardial infarction by as much as 46% in men, and more than 300% in women.
The Supreme Court of India in 2015 did lay down guidelines banning use of loudspeakers, bursting of loudspeakers and blowing of car horns between 10 pm and 6 am, it also mandated the upper limit at 75 decibels (far above the WHO prescribed limit) but there is little or no implementation of the ruling. No law on noise pollution has been passed by the Parliament.
I have the uncomfortable sense that it will yet again need an article in the Western press clearly elaborating the lethality of noise to make the necessary cacophony for people sit up and notice.
In the meantime we will continue to be the world champions of hypertension, diabetes and heart attacks, while rearing children who are physically and cognitively stunted to face the big wide world.
From ash to ash, and dust to dust
If Delhi air don’t get ya, the noise must.