Air and noise pollution on New Year’s Eve

On Tuesday evening, we hosted a dinner party for my brother-in-law who was on vacation in the country for the first time in more than two years. Tables were laid out in the garden and, while having the obligatory after-dinner coffee and tea with cakes, we heard firecracker explosions. These were followed by fireworks shooting into the clear evening sky.

Inevitably, the discussion turned to this persistent Filipino tradition — this belief that no New Year’s Eve celebration is complete without gunpowder explosion. I remarked that it was still a few days before New Year’s Eve but people just couldn’t wait. My sister-in-law agreed and relayed that on the news, there have already been reports of firecracker-related injuries. I asked, you mean blasted fingers as usual? She answered, yes. And I commented that Filipinos never learn — walang ka-dala dala.

People still don’t get it. Firecrackers are made with gunpowder, the same stuff used for making bombs and explosives. It’s undeniable, really, that while television is so effective in marketing even the most low-quality consumer goods, it has been largely ineffective in making people realize just how dangerous firecrackers are. Year in and year out, news programs show photos and videos of people — including young children — with mangled hands and fingers caused by firecrackers. And they don’t even seem to make people flinch.

The real creepy part is how fathers egg on their sons to learn how not to be afraid to light firecrackers. Like to be able to do it, and enjoy the ear-splitting blast, is a sure sign of manhood. Watch the news and count how many of those with mangled hands are males and how many are females. Just see how lopsided the ratio is.

Year in and year out, too, we hear and read about victims of indiscriminate gun firing but does it stop the gun-toting drunks from firing their guns into the air to greet the New Year? Like hell. It is enough that they can show off, that they own guns and they know how to fire them, and never mind who catches the bullets — that’s not part of the required knowledge for gun ownership.

So, if we stay with fireworks display, it’s safer and it must be okay, right? I used to say I love fireworks but hate firecrackers. Now, I just dislike both. Much as I am still awed by those spectacular explosions of colorful fountains of light in the sky, I think about the polluting effect and I wonder if the few moments of jaw-dropping spectacle is worth the polluted air. And the garbage.

What garbage? Oh, come on. When people light firecrackers and fireworks in the streets on New Year’s Eve, do they really sweep the debris afterward? Very few do. And the sad thing is that over the holidays, the people responsible for cleaning up public streets and collecting garbage are much too busy drinking and celebrating to do their job. Garbage collectors are days late and so are the street sweepers.

In a press release made two weeks ago by the EcoWaste Coalition, alternative ways of greeting the New Year are suggested. Blowing of horns and whistles, shaking maracas and tambourines, clanking “cymbals” made from pot lids, beeping of car horns…

Reading through the list, I wondered — what about noise pollution? Everyone’s so doggone concerned about air pollution and global warming — but what about noise pollution? It’s funny how no one seems to pay as much attention to the effects of noise. There’s good reason for calling noise pollution a modern-day plague — it is just as detrimental to human health as air pollution. The effects are both physiological and psychological. It can lead to aggression, sleep loss, stress and hypertension, and it can cause hearing loss.

If you’re a pet owner, watch how your dog or cat reacts to the noise on New Year’s Eve. You have to be really blind or insensitive or both not to see what the deafening noise does to them.

And if you’re the parent of a baby or a very young child, imagine what damage all the noise is doing to him. If part of your family’s New Year’s Eve tradition is to shout and bang and explode firecrackers, just think of what the long- term effects on the young child might be. There are studies that say that among pregnant women, noise “may increase the risk of high-frequency hearing loss in the newborn, shortened gestation, prematurity, and intrauterine growth retardation” (see “Noise Pollution: A Modern Plague: Groups Vulnerable to the Effects of Noise Pollution” in www.medscape.com).

I still don’t understand why people have to associate fun and celebration with noise. I don’t see why the amount of adrenalin rush has to be measured by the high pitch of a person’s voice and his ability to enjoy himself amid the din of shouts and clanging and explosions.

For all the concern for the environment that we like to display (hey, it’s fashionable to campaign against global warming and climate change, after all), for all the billions poured into studying the effects of air pollution on global warming and climate change (do you realize how many NGOs and foundations are raking in unbelievable sums of money for mouthing cliches about global warming and climate change?), many people still turn their backs on equally hazardous forms of pollution because it is simply too inconvenient and too corny to live in a quieter world.

So no one says much about the effects of too-loud music and the drunken karaoke singing in our everyday lives. Even much less is said about the senseless noise on New Year’s Eve. People are strange. Really strange.