Already worsening pollution levels will spike during Diwali due to firecrackers

Official forecast says pollution level during Diwali will hit severe levels as wind will drop. This leaves no room for poisonous fumes and toxins from crackers – Chinese or Indian.

Public support required to say ‘no to crackers’

  • The latest analysis of the air quality data by CSE at the onset of this winter shows that killer particles have already increased by nearly two times since September and there are more number of days in very poor and severe categories

  • According to the Indian Meteorological Department the wind will drop from October 29 and according to the SAFAR forecast the PM2.5 levels will breach the severe category

  • Toxic fumes from fireworks will only worsen this trend and will also deposit deadly chemicals in our environment that will remain trapped for days after

  • Festivities should not be marred by ill-health

  • Delhi is awaiting a deadly winter. Action to control pollution this winter must gather momentum

New Delhi, October 28, 2016: Centre for Science and Environment has issued a warning about the deadly impact of fire cracker pollution at the onset of winter when the air is already saturated. According to the Indian Meteorological Department, the wind will drop on October 29 and according to the SAFAR forecast the levels will breach the severe category on Diwali day. The current focus on only cracking down on only Chinese crackers should not detract attention from the health damage from all crackers. This demands strong regulatory and awareness action.

CSE’s latest analysis of the air quality data available from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) shows that the levels of tiny particles of less than 2.5 micron size in October have already increased two times since September this year. In September 23 per cent of days were in poor category and 13 per cent in very poor, and no day has experienced severe pollution. But in October, the share of poor air quality days have increased to 27 per cent, that of very poor to 57.7 per cent. In addition, 3.8 per cent of days have already experienced severe pollution.

“This leaves no room for additional pollution in the city especially from crackers that not only pushes up the pollution spike but also laces it with deadly cancer causing substances,” says CSE executive director (research and advocacy) Anumita Roychowdhury.

Over the years, average Diwali pollution levels have shown very rapid build-up. However, awareness campaigns have helped to lower the peak levels. In 2010 the levels were eleven times higher than the standards. In 2013 it was eight to nine times higher. In 2015 Diwali the levels were five times higher than the daily standards. Though the peak pollution has come down the levels are still unacceptably high. Such high levels lead to very high exposures that affect not only those who suffer from respiratory and cardiac problems but even those who are normally healthy. Doctors in the Capital have noticed a significant increase in emergency hospital admissions and increased use of medication in the general population during the Diwali week.

It is not enough to quibble over marginal changes to tackle peak pollution during Diwali from year to year. Any effort to control the situation requires strong community sensitization as well as a judicious mix of regulatory controls to protect public health. Several efforts are already underway to control this problem. These include noise regulations for crackers, ban on unregulated Chinese crackers, time restrictions for crackers along with advisory on distance from residence, schools and hospitals. Enforcement however, has remained a serious challenge.

What is at stake – our health
Crackers are a mix of deadly chemicals. Crackers not only emit more of particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide but also spew cancer causing toxins. It’s a myth that silent crackers and sparklers are safer. In fact, their coloured flames include deadly toxic metals  -- strontium for red, barium for green, copper for blue, iron for gold, copper and strontium for purple.  For glitter they use antimony sulphide that causes lung cancer and skin conditions. Copper compounds for blue trigger cancer, skin conditions and hormonal imbalances. Percholate is responsible for lung cancer and thyroid complications.

Pollutants settle invisibly all around us – on soil, vegetation, crop and water and through our food chain, come back to us.

Doctors are warning against breathlessness, cough, ashthma, pulmonary disease, rhinitis, and lower respiratory tract infection. Those suffering from broncho constriction, wheezing and chronic obstruction pulmonary disease need precaution. High exposures to metal particles are known to be associated with lung cancer, pneumoconiosis, emphysema and high toxic effect on cells in the long run. Though the exposure during Diwali is only short term it intensifies the already high exposure in the city.

Moreover, children are more vulnerable as they have poor defense mechanisms. Their ability to metabolise and detoxify environmental agents is different. Given their hyper level of physical activity, they inhale more volume of air than adults and therefore breathe more pollution. Joint studies of Central Pollution Control Board and Chittaranjan National Cancer Research Institute have already demonstrated that every third child in Delhi has impaired lungs.

Need to phase in good practices quickly
Other countries have developed proper strategies to regulate fire crackers related to celebration and festivities. Public health is given a priority.

  • Beijing and Shanghai: In order to cope with record smog, Beijing issues emergency plans to curb air pollution. This includes ban on fireworks when the city experiences three consecutive days of heavy smog. The city government recently introduced a regulation requiring people who buy five or more boxes of fireworks to register with an official ID. The city halts fireworks sales entirely if the pollution levels rise to dangerous levels. There are time and place restrictions and all fireworks are labeled. Shanghai has cut the city's number of authorized firework sellers after pollution levels increased five times during the fireworks extravaganza in 2013. New techniques have also been introduced for green fireworks.

  • United Kingdom: The Fireworks Regulation Act 2004 prohibits the use of fireworks in England and Wales between the hours of 11 pm and 7 am, although extensions are given for special events. These regulations are enforced by the police and include fines up to £5,000 and/or imprisoned for up to 6 months for selling or using fireworks illegally. This also includes on-the-spot fine of £90 and a penalty of up to £5,000 or six months imprisonment can be issued for a breach. There are strict time restrictions for cracker burning and sales. In several regions there is a growing trend towards community based organized events that are restricted in numbers. This reduces household-based uncontrolled use of fire crackers.

Need stronger regulatory action and awareness campaigns
Diwali pollution cannot be addressed only with command and control measures. It is important to step up campaigns by involving the medical community and putting out hard health evidences in the public domain to sensitize people about the harmful effects of fire crackers.

But the government will also have to start enforcing the guidelines that were issued by the Supreme Court in 2005. The Supreme Court has asked the central government to reclassify all fire crackers into sound and light emitting and make guidelines for both. Sound emitting crackers should be banned from 10pm to 6 am. Labeling guidelines should also be put in place for each category of firecrackers. The court took note that the current guidelines on manufacture of crackers do not take into account the air pollution aspects. There should be composition-based guidelines to reduce air pollution. Government should also step up on its awareness campaigns and promote community based fire crackers usage. These measures have however, not been implemented. Only noise regulations for crackers are in place and chemical compositions been defined for this. But there is no clear mechanism for proper enforcement and checks.

Act now – What needs to be done

  • Enforcing of time restrictions already in place and discouraging use of fireworks in sensitive areas including near hospitals, schools and densely populated residential areas

  • Issuing continuous alerts on pollution levels during Diwali to make people aware of the worsening pollution levels

  • Limiting licenses and areas of sales to control volumes

  • Carrying out random inspections to check non-compliant fireworks

  • In the longer term, tightening sound standards for crackers and regulating chemical compositions; Imposing high pollution cess on crackers based on polluter pay principle

  • Enforcing strict labeling of crackers with statutory health warnings

  • Expanding the scope of monitoring of environmental risk from fireworks

  • Intensifying public campaign to sensitize community