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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The onus of curbing air-pollution is on citizens as well

A recent study by The Lancet Journal revealed that outdoor pollution was responsible for 6% of the total disease burden in India in 2016. As a thick smog hangs low over Delhi, leaving its residents gasping for air, the pressure is on the government to implement SOS measures to curb the issue as well as introduce long-term measures to improve the air quality of the state. Other major cities like Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata should also acknowledge the gravitas of the situation.

The urgency of the air-pollution crisis in the country’s capital is being reflected on social media as well. A recent tweet by Virat Kohli, Captain of the Indian Cricket Team, urged his fans to do their bit in helping the city fight pollution. Along with the tweet, Kohli shared a video in which he emphasized that curbing pollution is everyone’s responsibility. Apart from advocating collective effort, Virat Kohli’s tweet also urged people to use buses, metros and Ola share to help reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

In the spirit of sharing the responsibility, ride sharing app Ola responded with the following tweet.

To demonstrate its commitment to fight the problem of vehicular pollution and congestion, Ola is launching #ShareWednesdays : For every ​new user who switches to #OlaShare in Delhi, their ride will be free. The offer by Ola that encourages people to share resources serves as an example of mobility solutions that can reduce the damage done by vehicular pollution. This is the fourth leg of Ola’s year-long campaign, #FarakPadtaHai, to raise awareness for congestion and pollution issues and encourage the uptake of shared mobility.

In 2016, WHO disclosed 10 Indian cities that made it on the list of worlds’ most polluted. The situation necessitates us to draw from experiences and best practices around the world to keep a check on air-pollution. For instance, a system of congestion fees which drivers have to pay when entering central urban areas was introduced in Singapore, Oslo and London and has been effective in reducing vehicular-pollution. The concept of “high occupancy vehicle” or car-pool lane, implemented extensively across the US, functions on the principle of moving more people in fewer cars, thereby reducing congestion. The use of public transport to reduce air-pollution is another widely accepted solution resulting in fewer vehicles on the road. Many communities across the world are embracing a culture of sustainable transportation by investing in bike lanes and maintenance of public transport. Even large corporations are doing their bit to reduce vehicular pollution. For instance, as a participant of the Voluntary Traffic Demand Management project in Beijing, Lenovo encourages its employees to adopt green commuting like biking, carpooling or even working from home. 18 companies in Sao Paulo executed a pilot program aimed at reducing congestion by helping people explore options such as staggering their hours, telecommuting or carpooling. After the pilot, drive-alone rates dropped from 45-51% to 27-35%.

It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that the growth of a country doesn’t compromise the natural environment that sustains it, however, a substantial amount of responsibility also lies on each citizen to lead an environment-friendly lifestyle. Simple lifestyle changes such as being cautious about usage of electricity, using public transport, or choosing locally sourced food can help reduce your carbon footprint, the collective impact of which is great for the environment.

Ola is committed to reducing the impact of vehicular pollution on the environment by enabling and encouraging shared rides and greener mobility. They have also created flat fare zones across Delhi-NCR on Ola Share to make more environment friendly shared rides also more pocket-friendly. To ensure a larger impact, the company also took up initiatives with City Traffic Police departments, colleges, corporate parks and metro rail stations.

Join the fight against air-pollution by using the hashtag #FarakPadtaHai and download Ola to share your next ride.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Ola and not by the Scroll editorial team.