With Deepavali round the corner, be careful while bursting high decibel crackers.

Deepavali, the festival of lights, turned out to be nightmarish for four-year-old Hari Iyer. Chennai-based Hari lost his hearing after a deafening cracker burst within a metre of where he was standing with his packet of sparklers. Unfortunately, there is no treatment; no medicine, no surgery, not even a hearing aid that can truly correct one's hearing once it is damaged by high decibel noise.

Many a Hari ends up with permanent and irreversible hearing loss every Deepavali. Firecrackers, which constitute an integral part of the celebrations, not only cause air and noise pollution but also pose an array of health risks. The high decibel levels cause high blood pressure, heart attack or other long-term health problems like restlessness, anger, fidgetiness, impulsive behaviour and sleep disturbance.

Normal decibel level for humans is 60 dB but most crackers emit more than 80 dB, a level that can cause temporary hearing loss. This has an adverse effect on children, senior citizens and pregnant women, leading them to become hyperactive or withdrawn.

Hearing loss

If noise is loud enough and lasts long enough, it can cause irreparable damage to hearing. The damage caused by noise is called sensorineural hearing loss or nerve loss. Every year post-Deepavali, many cases of tinnitus (a constant ringing sound in the ears), perforation of ear drums, blocked ear and temporary hearing loss are reported. Tinnitus, which commonly occurs after noise exposure, is often permanent.

The ear has three main parts: the outer, middle and inner ear. When noise is too loud, it begins to kill the nerve endings in the inner car. As the exposure time to loud noise increases, more and more nerve endings are destroyed, As the number of nerve endings decreases, so does your hearing. There is no way to restore life to dead nerve endings; the damage is permanent. The longer you are exposed to a loud noise, the more damaging it may be. Also, the closer you are to the source of intense noise, the more damaging it is.

The increase in the level of suspended particles in the air during Deepavali also leads to a slew of ear, nose and throat (ENT) problems. At this time, the air is thick with suspended particulate matter (SPM). Exposure to 100 ppm of SPM causes headaches and reduces mental agility. Though the effects may not be immediate, they can manifest as serious conditions later on. Especially vulnerable are those with heart, lung or central nervous system diseases.

Toxic presence

To study the chemical composition of fire crackers, some samples analysed at the Bombay Natural History Society Laboratory showed an alarmingly high presence of extremely toxic heavy metals like cadmium and lead, in addition to other metals like copper, manganese, zinc, sodium, magnesium and potassium in the fire-crackers. Sulphur dioxide is readily soluble and dissolves in the larger airways of the respiratory system na restricts the breathing process.  Nitrogen dioxide, which is less soluble, penetrates the smaller airways and the lungs and destroys the linings of the respiratory surface thereby reducing the intake of oxygen. These cause respiratory allergies like asthma. Allergic bronchitis, bronchial asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, COPD, allergic rhinitis, laryngitis, sinusitis, pneumonia and common cold show a sharp increase during this festive season.

So, as you prepare to light your pile of firecrackers and spare a thought for the health risks they pose.

The writer is a Chennai-based ENT specialist.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012