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‘Arecanut is the major most cause of Oral Submucous Fibrosis, a precancerous condition’
Dr. Hemantha Amarasinghe

‘Extreme incessant sounds destroy these hair cells. With so many hours of loud music and one can go slowly deaf.’

 Dr. Chandra Jayasuriya

‘Prevention measures amount to nothing if authorities don’t address the issue of traffic congestion.’                                                                
Dr. MAB Prashantha

Health issues related to traffic noise range from irritability, sleep disorders, hormonal imbalances, hearing loss and cardiovascular disorders. On top of it lack of awareness about hygienic habits makes them susceptible to illness. It’s literally a mayday situation for working bus drivers and Nation though it apt to speak about bus drivers and health issues that comes with the territory.

Smoking, drinking and betel chewing are a few of the obvious vices of bus drivers. And since they can’t smoke and drink on the go, they chew betel as a measure of stress relief. According to a study conducted by the IOH, 59 percent of bus drivers occasionally chew betel and 22.3 percent chew daily.

“Arecanut is the major most cause of Oral Submucous Fibrosis, a precancerous condition,” said Institute of Oral Health, Head of Research, Dr. Hemantha Amarasinghe. “Chewing betel alone does not cause cancer, it’s the combination of betel, tobacco and arecanut that
cause cancer.”

According to Dr. Amarasinghe over 19,000 cases of oral cancer was reported in 2009. “Males are predisposed to oral cancer.” A burning sensation in the mouth, whiteness of lip and difficulty in opening the mouth is characteristic of Oral Submucous Fibrosis, explained Dr. Amarasinghe.

Sachets of beeda, babul and mawa, a mixture of arecanut, cloves, coconut, nutmeg, cardamom, aniseed and other spices are the in-thing among bus drivers and conductors now. Dr. Amarasinghe pointed out that the sachets are a big business now, with private buses performing transport duty. “Specially buses plying on long distance such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are known to transport these sachets in bulk,” said
Dr. Amarasinghe.

Dr. Amarasinghe pointed out that various methods have been used previously with the hopes of discouraging bus drivers from chewing betel, such as the enforcement of National Thoroughfares Act in 2008, which makes spitting on public roads illegal. But this is hardly enforced.

Hygiene is something under our control, but often our physical and chemical environment is not. The incessant noise produced by traffic and blaring stereos and ‘bus TVs’ may have unforeseen undesirable repercussions.

“Hair cells in the inner ear are responsible for detecting sound,” said Consultant Ear, Nose and Throat surgeon at the Colombo National Hospital, Dr. Chandra Jayasuriya. The inner ear contains what is called a cochlea, the organ that converts sound waves into neural signals.

Hair cells are found in the organ of Corti located in the cochlea. “Extreme incessant sounds destroy these hair cells.” Dr. Jayasuriya explained that for bus drivers who are exposed to traffic noise continuously, it’s cause enough for psychological strain. On top of it most buses have music blaring over stereo systems. “With so many hours of loud music and one can go slowly deaf.”

When asked whether the damage is reversible, Dr. Jayasuriya answered in the negative. But added that if drivers get adequate amount of rest, that is if they work only five days a week and take a two-day break such adverse health impacts can be avoided. “Safe zone for the human ear is below decibels,” said Dr. Jayasuriya.

Study ‘Traffic composition and variability of road traffic noise levels in the vicinity of Colombo’ authored by CM Kalansuriya, et al, supports that constant exposure to noise can affect both mental and physical health.

According to the study, “Noise can interfere with
communication, cause cardiovascular effects, sleep disturbances, reduce performance, lead to annoyance and alter social behaviour. At sufficiently high levels, it can also impair hearing.”

It also notes that heavy vehicles such as lorries, buses and containers contribute significantly to the average noise levels; which goes to show that bus drivers exposed to such noise continuously, are most susceptible to its repercussions.

The study states, “Those who reside close to the traffic routes, although they are 30 km away from the Colombo city, are exposed to noise levels reaching 70 dB(A) during day time for category A and B roads, which is the maximum recommended permissible noise level at roadsides for residential areas in Japan.”

Sri Jayewardenepura University, Chemistry Department, Senior Lecturer, Dr MAB Prashantha emphasized the importance of avoiding plastic bottles that have being exposed to the sun. Bus drivers often leave their water bottles in the sun or near the engine where it can heat up. “Even unopened plastic water and soft drink bottles in grocery shops, if they have been exposed to the sun, should be avoided,” warned Dr. Prashantha. He explained that when the bottle heats up, chemicals in the plastic come undone due to the photochemical reaction and mixes with water.

“These are carcinogenic chemicals,” said Dr. Prashantha. Cancer and other serious ailments can develop in people due to plastic getting into our systems,” Dr Prashantha said. “And often symptoms take years to materialize.”

He explained that disposable plastic bottles often contain Non-intentionally added substances or NIAS. Polyethylene terephthalate or PET bottles are not pure plastic and often contain impurities such as NIAS. When heated, these chemicals break free from the plastic and mix with water. “Then there are additives in the plastic, added to enhance its performance.”

Common NIAS include Acetaldehyde, 2-Methyl-1,3-dioxolane, unsaturated aldehydes and xylene affect the human endocrine system, causing hormonal imbalances. Some bottles contain Bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone disrupting chemical. BPA is known to cause reproductive abnormalities such as lower sperm counts, hormonal changes and enlarged prostate glands. His advice, “use glass bottles”.

“Prevention measures amount to nothing if authorities don’t address the issue of traffic congestion,” iterated
Dr. Prashantha.