air pollution

What that Diwali smog did to your lungs, heart and body

Fireworks contain several compounds that on combustion are toxic irritants at best and cancer-causing agents at worst.

During Diwali last week, residents of the National Capital Region and Mumbai managed to bypass bans on the sale of firecrackers and burst them in celebration of the festival with the usual gusto. Smog filled major cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru and Kolkata and pollution levels soared. Many people have wondered why the courts have imposed bans on sales of fireworks when pollution from other sources, like vehicles, continues unabated. The reason is this – firecrackers are not like most other sources of air pollution and contain highly toxic mixture of chemicals. Some of these chemicals are irritants, some poisonous and others carcinogenic.

What makes firecrackers worse than many other sources of air pollution we encounter everyday is that they are, literally, in your face.

“These firecrackers contain heavy metals like lead and arsenic which enter the blood streams of people who are inhaling the toxic fumes causing short and long term health consequences,” Rohini Chowgule, a pulmonologist at the Indian Institute of Environmental Medicine.

It is true that fireworks during Diwali are not the only source of air pollution that needs to be controlled. For instance, Delhi’s poor air quality is due to vehicular emissions, emissions from industries as well as emissions from crop stubble burning in neighbouring state Punjab. These are classified as background emissions that are almost permanent pollution challenges in our cities. Smoke from bursting firecrackers is an episodic and temporary form of pollution. Dr Guffran Ullah Beig, scientist and programme director of the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, points out that with our background emissions already at dangerous levels, our cities cannot afford to add such pollutants to the air in large quantities, even if they are temporary.

A senior doctor compared burning firecrackers to keeping one’s nose at the a vehicle’s exhaust pipe. “Would you inhale the dark gases released by your car?” he asked.

Health impacts

The Central Pollution Control board has drawn up a list of the known health impacts that are caused by combustion of chemicals commonly found in firecrackers. For example, aluminium, which produces the silver colour in many crackers, causes contact dermatitis, which is inflammation of the skin. Barium nitrate, which is used as an oxidiser that helps combustion and produces a green colour effect, is poisonous, can irritate the respiratory tract and can have radioactive fallouts. Potassium nitrate, copper compounds and antimony sulphide are carcinogens while ash from arsenic compounds can cause lung cancer. Lead compounds that can remain in the air for days can trigger developmental disorders in foetuses and in young children.

Moreover, copper compounds, aluminium, mercury and lead accumulate in the environment.

“The toxic fumes released on burning of crackers contain heavy metals which are known carcinogens,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director at the Centre for Science and Environment. “It is not a one time effect. These toxins are settling down and entering our food chain.”

Chowgule pointed out that most people failed to understand the impact of inhaling these toxic fumes. “It is not just about the air quality, the metals which are used in the crackers and the smoke released from them have debilitating health outcomes for children and elderly,” she said. These debilitating health outcomes are weaker lungs, lower immunity and exacerbation of conditions for those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension and cardiac diseases.

“Your act of burning crackers may just exasperate someone’s asthma,” Chowgule added.

Ban is good, more is needed

Beig feels that the Supreme Court’s ban on the sale of firecrackers was necessary as an immediate method of controlling air pollution. “One has to take such temporary measures to ensure that situation does not go into the dangerous category,” he said. “Last year, we saw [such dangerous levels of pollution] in Delhi.”

Roychowdhury pointed out that even such bans fall short in controlling fireworks pollution. “We need to regulate the chemicals used in making of these crackers. There is a need to bring down the quantum of the fire crackers by dissuading household level cracker bursting and considering community events instead.

However, the Supreme Court’s move to ban firecracker sales this year has been a desperate last measure to avoid pollution like the morning after Diwali in 2016 when air quality in Delhi deteriorated more than three times the average. This is, in fact, a result of the pollution control board’s failure to study the health impacts of fireworks in detail and to establish standards for components in fireworks.

“People are not going in the forest and burning these crackers,” said Chowgule, reiterating how proximity to this form of pollution is its biggest threat. “They burn it in building compounds putting themselves and everyone at the risk of the adverse health outcomes.”

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