Sound-the great polluter

Shams-i Arefin Islam | Saturday, 16 January 2021

It was 2:00 AM and a rather massive, loud sound startled us from our deep sleep. First, we thought it was a bomb, then we realised after a few more of these loud explosions that the "simple" firework cracker was the lamentable culprit. No, it was not the 1st of January any more, but 6th of January, 2021. It is understandable how happy people were to leave horrifying 2020 behind, and yet flabbergasted at their innate obliviousness that people might be asleep. I also had an urge to use a mike to announce that it was not 31st December 2020 any longer. Of course, the neighborhood street dogs began to howl, probably out of pain and agony due to their sensitive hearing, followed by the distressed squawk of a building parrot. I wouldn't be surprised to find him curl his wings and drop dead one of these days. In fact, hundreds of innocent startling birds were found dead scattered on the streets of Rome, Italy, this New Year's Eve obliging animal rights groups to call it what it really was--a "massacre".

As we managed to drift asleep, construction trucks came pouring in with their bricks, and workers began to hurl them at unexpected moments onto the street below. It was now 3:00 AM, and questions lingered if I would ever be able to get a good night's rest. Before long the iron rod laden trucks came, and perhaps it was already time for Fajr. I wanted to get up and rush to pray for some peace. By 7:30 AM the ubiquitous hammering sound of excavators were at full force stamping holes for yet another nine-story capitalist megalithic behemoth, with no consideration for anyone. This was followed by the excruciating sound of tiles being sliced in yet another apartment complex, which at that point, I really wished they'd bring back the gentle hum of mosaic polishing machines of yore. To their credit, they weren't working through evenings, because of rules that would disturb the peace of night. How thoughtful!

The World Health Organization in 2011 released an informative yet reproachful report titled "Burden of Disease from Environmental Noise." It concluded that "there is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population." This isn't a surprise at the least, and in fact quite simple; sound pollution has immense implications for human health from lowering productivity levels, to hearing loss, tinnitus, cognitive impairment and cardiovascular disease. Many of us feel tired when we wake up and while there is a myriad of reasons, it's still critical to note that the ear never shuts down, for obvious survival reasons. The ear constantly sends signals to the brain to process sound waves throughout the night. While the aforementioned report focused on noise in Western Europe, we can only extrapolate the exponential problem for Dhaka City that may petrify even the most seasoned of sound health experts.

The Noise Pollution Control Rules 2006 were adopted under Section 20 of the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act of 1995, and quite unsurprisingly, its enforcement is lost somewhere in the depths of our consciousness. How sound affects us depends on its intensity, duration, and frequency of the exposure. The WHO has established that the safe sound level changes according to the time that a person is exposed to it. For example, 100 decibels can be listened to for about 15 minutes each day. In Bangladesh, our rules limit it to 55 decibels for residential areas during the day and 45 decibels at night. In 2017, a Department of Environment study showed that the sound levels were beyond the safe limits of human ears, up to 120-130 decibels at certain parts of the city. To give you an idea of how loud that is, a jet take-off can produce at least 100 decibels of sound, if not more, a fighter jet can produce 130 decibels of excruciating sound. In fact, many car horns can produce around 100 decibels of sound. Limiting the power and import of loud car horns is one sure way to move forward, however the report shows that it is already too late for around 11 per cent of the country's population, who has had hearing loss due to noise pollution.

It's safe to say that I speak on behalf of millions of residents of Dhaka City; children who want to sleep, or study, people at work, grandparents and patients who are ill in bed, and poor animals with no ability to protest what their "sentient" human overlords are doing to their basic right to live on the same planet as theirs. Furthermore, enforcement aside, how we as a society readily choose not to follow national laws is a dire reflection of our lack of empathy and civic duty. (Dhaka Metropolitan Police had instructed against fireworks). This is exacerbated by our incessant greed of capital gains and just that one night of "fun," while we egregiously overlook those who are less able than us.

The Global Livability Index from 2019 had Dhaka as the third least livable city in the world and just teetering below the war-torn Syrian capital Damascus. Dhaka City is just dangerously noisy. We as city dwellers are desperate for a livable city, where we spend an evening in peaceful slumber, breathe, and work in peace. If all this does not awaken us, then I am not sure how much louder the city needs to get before we face our mistakes. For now, I am just trying to type, while listening to a screaming low flyby of two fighter jets above our heads, over the most densely populated city in the world.

Shams-i Arefin Islam is a current Associate Fellow at Yale Berkeley College, and is researching on waste water challenges in Dhaka City for Ashoka and Schwab Foundation. Fellow Mr. Maqsood Sinha is at Waste Concern. He was also selected to be a Global Scholars Fellow at the prestigious Yale Young Global Scholars Program in the United States, and as a student, he was a liaison for the Greenberg World Fellows program at Yale University.
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