Meena was three years old when her brother invited her to come and play with the phuljari (sparkler). A group of boys thought it might be funny to scare the little girl by bursting a cracker. As the girl ran out joyously, a rassi bomb exploded near her. Meena was stunned into silence as the world around her went soundless.
The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) reported in 2011 that noise levels in metropolitan cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore are above permitted limits. A survey conducted by CPCB also found that Mumbai is the noisiest city in the world. The Indian Council of Medical Research have found that deafness is on the rise in India with one out of every 12 people affected by this problem.
Long hours of travel on local trains can be dreary and many commuters drown out the din with the tunes that catch their fancy. As trains chug past and people’s chattering voices grow louder, so does the volume on the phone or MP3 player. In an increasingly noisy world, where volumes are hitting the skyline and the melange of music and traffic is rendering us tone deaf, the threat of deafness lurks forever.
In a culture-rich country like ours, festivals witness surges in decibel levels. Sumaira Abdulali, convener, Awaaz Foundation says, “The only festival during which noise levels have gone down is Diwali. This year distributors agreed to ban certain crackers and police also supported the cause of a noise-free Diwali.” A dna report revealed that noise levels had been reduced by 10 percent this year. However, the situation was an anomaly among festivals. “Ganpati festivities this year were the loudest in recent times and the decibel peaked to 124dB whereas Janmashtami last year was the loudest in the decade with the decibel in some areas reaching 117dB.” Abdulali and her team record the noise levels at different locations during festivals. The CPCB has set a limit of 55dB in residential areas and that of 65dB in commercial areas during the day.
“The danger is that deafness creeps in slowly, is difficult to detect and causes irreversible damage,” comments Dr Anamika Rathore, consultant ENT surgeon at Kamabala Hills Hospital and Bombay Hospital. It can take between 10 to 15 years for one to realise that their hearing has been affected, say doctors.
“If you go to a pub and listen to blaring music, your hearing will be affected temporarily but this damage is reversed after a day or two when you are in a quiet environment. If you continue to expose yourself to such loud sounds, the damage becomes permanent.” explains Dr Palak Shroff Bhatti, an ENT specialist in Bandra."Sudden loud sounds such as those caused by certain firecrackers or a blast can potentially rupture the delicate ear drum, and dislocate the bones in the middle ear. They can also damage the tiny sensory cells called hair cells located in the inner ear. Hair cells do not regenerate, which means that if they are damaged, the consequent hearing loss is permanent" says Anuradha Bantwal, an audiologist and speech therapist from Mumbai.
In 2012, German luxury car makers Audi announced extra loud horns for their cars sold in India as cars honk much more in India than in Europe. Michael Perschke, brand director for Audi India, told the financial newspaper Mint, “You take a European horn and it will be gone in a week or two. With the amount of honking in Mumbai, we do on a daily basis what an average German does on an annual basis.” The horns are tested by “two continuous weeks only of honking,” explained Perschke. Abdulali adds, “I measured the horn and found it to be 101dB.”
Protecting oneself from the sounds of traffic and crackers is not possible at all times. However, people can control the amount of time they spend listening to music through headphones. “People should avoid talking for more than 40 minutes at a stretch on the phone. The volume should not exceed 80dB. Young children and teenagers are more vulnerable to these sounds as their reflexes are not completely developed,” says Dr Rathore. People can monitor the noise they are subjected to by using a mobile application called NoiseWatch that detects sound and displays it in decibels.
Doctors believe that ear-muffins or headphones that cover the ears are safer to use than the earphones that reach into the ear. If one needs to have a long conversation on the phone, using the speaker feature is a good idea. “Apart from deafness, as these earphones reach into the ear canal, the pressure can cause boils, ear inflammation, excessive wax formation and other problems,” comments Dr Bhatti. Dr Rathore opines that “headphones can be used safely for around three-four hours at a volume of approximately 50dB. People who use them for more than 12 hours are inviting trouble.” Dr Bhatti agrees that using headphones for a duration of half an hour, two or three times in a day is within limits.
Dr Hetal Marfatiya, ENT professor at KEM Hospital, comments, “The ambient noise or the noise in the environment is so loud that people are forced to increase the volume on the headphones which can lead to accidents.”
Though safety standards are set and broken, doctors agree that listening to your ear is the best way to protect yourself. Every person’s capacity of withstanding noise differs and if one experiences symptoms such as pain, irritation, itching, a whistling or a ringing sound, consulting an ENT is advisable as they maybe signs of damage to the ear. Listening to music on your headphones at a lower volume and for shorter durations may just be the key to helping you hear better for longer.