It is official. Diwali pollution has worsened this year

  • This year Diwali pollution is not only worse but also more toxic as maximum levels of several gases and particles have gone up from last year

  • Neither policy action nor awareness campaigns could prevent toxic loading of our lungs. This is unacceptable in a city where lung of every third child in impaired.

  • Festival of light cannot turn into scary statistics of illness and deaths

  • Delhi is awaiting yet another deadly winter. Acton to control pollution this winter has to gather momentum now.

New Delhi October 31, 2016: The official release of the Delhi Pollution Control Committee shows that Diwali pollution has remained dangerous and worse than last year. The maximum levels of PM2.5, and all gases -- nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, and carbon monoxide are higher than last year. Pollution level has seen rapid escalation beyond the standards and also very high short duration peaks during Diwali night – leading to high exposure levels. Diwali pollution has continued to add to the pollution woes. Sustaining the pollution control efforts for further reduction in pollution levels is turning out to be an enormous challenge. This requires longer term strategy to address this problem. 

Diwali pollution has not only worsened this year, it is also more toxic. Several gases have gone up together this year. The key highlights of Diwali pollution as available from Delhi Pollution Control Committee are as follow:  

  • Maximum level of tiny particles (PM2.5) has worsened: According to the data released by the Delhi Pollution Control Board the minimum and maximum range of PM2.5, the tiny killers, show that this year it has ranged between 180 microgramme per cum to 440 microgramme per cum compared to 184-369 microgramem per cum last year. Thus, maximum levels have remained more than seven times the standards and worse than last year.

  • Nitrogen oxide worse: The minimum and maximum levels of NO2 this year is 70-123  microgramme per cum compared to 37-79 microgramme per cum in 2015. The maximum levels have increased by nearly 1.5 times. The lower level has doubled.

  • Carbon monoxide (CO) otherwise declining in Delhi also shot up: CO levels, that otherwise is declining in Delhi increased during this year compared to last year. This year CO has ranged between 2000 microgramme per cum to 4200 microgramme per cum as opposed to 1100 microgramme per cum to 4000 microgramme per cum last year. High level of CO can curdle blood and lead to instant deaths.

  • Sulphur dioxide levels (SO2) which otherwise records very low level in Delhi also escalated significantly: This year it has ranged between 20-131 microgramme per cum as opposed to 26-64 microgramme per cum last year. The maximum level has exceeded the standards and doubled.

  • Rapid build up of pollution: Further analysis of daily data by CSE shows how rapidly pollution built up during October 29-30 from the average level of pre-Diwali days (October 25-28). This increased by 45 per cent. Also night time pollution during Diwali builds up was very severe.  It increased from day time by 3.2 times.

  • High exposure in residential areas: CSE has also tracked the real time air pollution data reported in the official website of the Delhi Pollution Control Committee on the night of Diwali. This shows rapid build up of pollution after 5 pm and very high peak levels during night. Calm weather with nearly no wind blocked quick dispersal of smoke and pollutants. The crackers are burst maximum in residential areas. Such high level of exposures can lead to escalation in hospital admissions related to respiratory and cardiac symptoms.

Need to phase in good practices quickly

Doctors are warning against breathlessness, cough, ashthma, pulmonary disease, rhinitis, and lower respiratory tract infection. Those suffering from broncho constriction, wheezing; 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 Diwali is a short term exposure it adds to the already high exposure in the city.

Children are more vulnerable. Children have poor defense mechanism. Their ability to metabolise and detoxify environmental agents is different. Given their hyper level of physical activities they inhale more volume of air than adults and therefore breathe more pollution. Already the joint studies of Central Pollution Control Board and Chittaranja National Cncer Research Institute have shown every third child in Delhi has impaired lungs. At their growing age due to greater level of physical activity they inhale more volume of air and therefore more pollution.

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 plan 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 rises to dangerous levels. There are time and place restrictions. All fireworks are labelled. Shanghai has cut the city's number of authorised firework sellers after pollution levels increased five times after fireworks extravaganza in 2013. New techniques 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 the following special events. These regulations are enforced by the police. There can be fine 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 in prison can be issued for a breach. There is strict time restriction 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

It is important to step up campaigns by involving the medical community and putting out hard health evidences in the public domain to sensitise people about the harmful effects of fire crackers. The government will also have to start enforcing the guidelines that were directed by the Supreme Court in 2005. Licensing policy must also be devised to restrain volume of crackers sale.

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. There should also be labeling guidelines 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 awareness campaign and promote community based fire crackers usage. But these have not been implemented. Only noise regulations for crackers are in place and chemical composition has been defined for this. But there is no clear mechanism for proper enforcement and checks.

Act now

  • Enforce time restriction already in place and discourage fireworks in sensitive areas including near hospital, schools and densely populated residential areas

  • Issue continuous alert on pollution levels during Diwali to make people aware of the worsening pollution

  • Limit licenses and areas of sales to control volume of sales

  • Organise random inspection to check non-compliant crackers.

  • In the longer term tighten sound standards for crackers and regulate chemical composition; Impose high pollution cess on crackers based on polluter pay principle

  • Enforce strict labeling of crackers with statutory warning on health

  • Expand the scope of monitoring of environmental risk from fireworks

  • Intensify public campaign to sensitise community

This requires strong community sensitization as well as judicious mix of regulatory controls to protect public health.

For more information contact, Souparno Banerjee at