Cracker ban puts lid on toxic brew, a step in right direction to control air pollution

The ban on Diwali crackers does not ruin the festival of lights. Experts say that on the contrary, the ban will actually spare citizens from lethal doses of toxic substances that are not measured in routine pollution checks such as mercury, lead, and aluminium. As for those who value clean air—the apex court order is just a good first step. It is an intervention that makes much more sense than steps such as the temporary ban on new diesel vehicles, the odd-even scheme, environment specialists say. “This will play a crucial role in regulating air pollution in the region and reduce the impact on human health,” said Ajay Mathur, Director General of New Delhi-based think tank, The Energy and Resources Institute, or TERI. The order, restores the pristine glory of Diwali, when people celebrated the festival with earthen lamps and a few sparklers; but in recent decades, the festival has been marred byostentatioususeof firecrackers that contain lethal doses of chemicals, and release poisonous gases, putting people to risk of cancer, skin disorder. Bursting crackers was a major contributor to the dark 10-day haze that enveloped Delhi last year, with poisonous substances at alarming levels, he said. “The ban by the Supreme Court would ensure that unlike previous years, Delhi does not gasp for clean air after Diwali, and those suffering from respiratory diseases do not have to consider leaving the city during this time,” Mathur said. Data recorded by monitoring stations shows that the levels of toxins that can accumulate in humans, animals and plants, jumps three to four times the average levels of October and November. Unlike other experts, Mathur, who has been a part of international group of scientists working with the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change, stresses the ban on firecrackers is just a first step. “With meteorological conditions not being favourable for dispersing dust and particulate matter in a short interval, the ban is a step in the right direction,” he said. Those arguing that the ban will diminish festive fervour would benefit from a quick glance at the toxic brew that goes into a seemingly innocuous firecracker. Every firecracker from the simple phuljhari to the more elaborate rocket requires oxidising agents to produce the oxygen required to burn the mixture, a reducing agent to burn the oxygen, a regulator to determine the speed of the reaction and colouring, and binders to hold the mixture together. Materials used include nitrates, sulphur, charcoal, aluminium, titanium, copper, strontium, barium, dextrin and paron. Virtually every organ in the body is at risk especially given the huge quantities of firecrackers that are burst during Diwali. Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta, who gave the firecracker ban judgment, observed in the five days that Diwali is celebrated, roughly 10 lakh kg of firecrackers are burst each day. In its affidavit to the Supreme Court, Central Board of Pollution Control , the country’s apex pollution regulator, analysed the four commonly sold types of firecrackers— atom bombs, Chinese crackers, maroons, and garland crackers. It found that the four key ingredients used were aluminiumpowder, whichgives firecrackers its brilliant flames and white sparks, sulphur, potassium nitrate, and barium nitrate. These ingredients, according to the scientists at CPCB, are a major constituent of the smog that forms on bursting of firecrackers and hangs over the city like an impenetrable cloak for days after Diwali. This smog has high levels of sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter containing heavy metals such as lead, mercury, strontium, lithium, and aluminium. The CPCB says that a “major concern being the inappropriate stoichiometric amounts of the ingredients in making common firecrackers.” What worries the regulators in the quantities in which the ingredients are used to make firecrackers louder, brighter and even longer lasting. The end result is that every firecracker burst adds to the already heavy pollution load. TERI’s point person on air pollution, Sumit Sharma, says “The ban will certainly lead to lesser pollution levels, especially during the days after Diwali.” Scientists have known for long about the contribution of firecrackers to making the air dirty and the harmful health impacts of the particular brew of pollutants. In 2003, Khaiwal Ravindra and his two colleagues at department of environmental sciences and engineering at Guru Jambeshwar University studied the effect of fire crackers on the air quality of Hisar City in Haryana during Diwali. They found a clear link—the levels of sulphur dioxides increased tenfold while that of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter increased two to three folds. Similar studies have been undertaken by scientists from the Meghnad Saha Institute of Technology in Howrah, All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Sanitation, Kolkata, and Jadavpur University. They too recorded an exponential spike in pollution. Their 2007 study, which was restricted to the Howrah area, revealed an increase in the incidenceof cardiovascular mortality andmorbidity of 125% and 175%, respectively. The Supreme Court’s judgment comes as a validation to these researchers. Bhargav Krishna, co-founder of Care for Air, and researcher with the Centre for Environmental Health at the Public Health Foundation of India, says this is an important judgment as “it places public health front and centre, ahead of economic interests of anyparticular groupandtheimportance of this frame cannot be overemphasised.” But not everyone believes that the state governments have treated the issue with the seriousness it requires. Atul Goyal, president of the United Residents Joint Action of Delhi (URJA) argues that Delhi government needs to step up its public engagement on the issue. “The government needs to put the information on the harm caused by the firecrackers much more aggressively. For the most part people are ignorant of what goes into the firecrackers and how it hurts them. The information needs to be hammered into them to change people’s mindset.” The Supreme Court judgment, Krishna explains “is a first and important step in a broad swathe of actions required to address the air pollution issue in Delhi and the region.” To effectively control of air pollution in the city, stringent measures are required for other major sources, which emit toxic pollutants all-round the year.
Source: ET