With no law regulating chemical composition of firecrackers, be prepared for a deadly Diwali

Whether or not the Supreme Court's order banning the sale of firecrackers in the National Capital Region (NCR) will have the desired effect remains to be seen, considering the air in Delhi is said to be of extremely poor quality throughout the year. As per statistics available on the Help Delhi Breathe NGO's website, the World Health Organisation has set a "safe limit" of 25 micrograms of particulate matter (PM) per cubic meter of air. Delhi's air met that safe standard for just seven days in the last two years, meaning residents of the national capital inhaled hazardous air for about 99 percent of the year.

With no law regulating chemical composition of firecrackers, be prepared for a deadly Diwali

Representational image. Getty Images

However, the air pollution levels see a sudden and almost toxic spike on and around Diwali. As reported by Hindustan Times last year, the air in Delhi on the morning after Diwali was "difficult to breathe" and many complained of "zero visibility". The air quality index, which is classified as "severe" if it's between 400 and 500, indicated levels of 492 and 500 in parts of the national capital. To put this in perspective, the report said, China declares a "red alert" if air quality plunges to this level. If the levels continue for three consecutive days, China facilitates measures such as shutting down schools and offices, closing down industries and power plants, and road rationing of vehicles. Delhi did none of the above.

To analyse the threat posed by bursting firecrackers on Diwali, the Chest Research Foundation of India and students from the Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences of the University of Pune measured particulate matter emitted by each firecracker from the distance they are usually lit; for example, the sparklers at a foot from the user.

The snake tablet produced the highest levels of PM 2.5, followed by the ladi, pulpul, fuljhadi, chakri and anar. Although the snake tablet burned only for nine seconds, it produced the highest peak PM (particulate matter) — 2.5 level of 64,500 µg/m3, which is 2,560 times above WHO standards — while the ladi produced peak PM 2.5 levels of 38,540 µg/m3, 1,541 times over WHO standards.

Courtesy: Chest Research Foundation, Pune, and Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences, University of Pune

Courtesy: Chest Research Foundation, Pune, and Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences, University of Pune

As reported by Quint, India has set a 24-hour mean standard of 60 µg/m³ (micrograms per cubic metre) for PM 2.5, while the WHO has a lower standard of 25 µg/m³. PM 2.5 are particles 30 times finer than human hair; they accumulate in human organs and blood stream, increasing the risk of sickness and death.

Children with weak immune and respiratory responses are especially vulnerable because of this. "Children in particular burn the fuljhadi, the pulpul and the snake tablet barely a foot or two away from them, and in doing so, (they) inhale a large number of smoke particles that reach deep into their lungs," Sneha Limaye, senior scientist at the Chest Research Foundation of India, was quoted as saying in the report.

Chemical composition of firecrackers

The problem, however, is that while studies can measure the pollution caused by a particular firecracker, there is no way of judging the composition of these products. Since many firecrackers are manufactured in small-scale cottage industries and sold informally, there aren't guidelines to monitor their production, nor are they compelled to mention the composition on the packaging.

The Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) is a central government body that is in charge of defining standards the firecrackers are meant to adhere to.

As per a report in The Times of India, the only known guidelines ever drawn regarding the issue were in 2008 when the Supreme Court told PESO to notify regulations on permitted chemicals for crackers. But there were over 40 notified types of firecrackers, while the guidelines were issued for only four of these. Furthermore, the guidelines said each individual cracker product must contain nitrates not exceeding 57 percent, aluminium powder of upto 24 percent, and sulphur content not exceeding 20 percent.

On ingredients like cobalt, copper, magnesium, which are routinely used in the manufacture of firecrackers, the regulations are silent.

A Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) official was quoted in the report as saying they regularly send crackers to PESO for testing, and products that do not adhere to standards are banned. But the PESO alone can determine what these "standards" are.

At the very least, the PESO has made it mandatory for manufacturers in Sivakasi, the firecracker manufacturing capital of India, located in Tamil Nadu, to follow the standards it has set. However, the presence of small-scale factories and the large number of crackers they produce means that a majority of the products available may not be following the guidelines.

K Mariappan, secretary of Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association, was quoted as saying by The Times of India report: "In Sivakasi, we don't uses chlorides or per-chlorides. We use nitrates and its salts for effects," he said.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Oct 18, 2017 13:12:10 IST

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