Ec(h)o-friendly Diwali | Anatomy of a cracker: A toxic affair - Hindustan Times

Ec(h)o-friendly Diwali | Anatomy of a cracker: A toxic affair

Hindustan Times, Chandigarh | ByAneesha Bedi and Shub Karman Dhaliwal, Chandigarh
Oct 18, 2017 02:40 PM IST

The toxins in various crackers could leave you gasping for breath

The glitz and glitter of the festive season hide its dark underbelly, which is manifested in various ailments caused by the polluted air, noisy surroundings, and toxic waste.

The bursting of firecrackers also leads to smog which is not only injurious to health but also obstructs the vision and causes accidents.(HT File)
The bursting of firecrackers also leads to smog which is not only injurious to health but also obstructs the vision and causes accidents.(HT File)

Crackers and chemicals used in them:

Rockets: Barium nitrate, potassium nitrate, sulphur, aluminium powder, carbon

Atom bomb: Potassium nitrate, barium nitrate, sulphur, aluminium powder

Wheels: Barium nitrate, potassium nitrate, aluminium chips, aluminium powder

Fountains: Barium nitrate, potassium nitrate, aluminium chips, aluminium powder

Sparklers: Barium nitrate, cassia gum, iron filling, aluminium powder

Every year, crackers burnt on Diwali release a massive amount of pollutants in a short time. A cracker is generally made by tightly packing potassium, carbon nitrate and sulfur in several layers of paper. In the beginning, the aim was to create a loud bang, but increasingly crackers also emit a large number of colours. While it is difficult not to admire the riot of colours in the sky, the toxins emitted in the air are harmful for the lungs.

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Prafulla Chandra, a senior research fellow at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Mohali, says Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), when inhaled in high concentration, damages the lung tissues and triggers respiratory ailments.

In 2016, the ambient concentration of SO2 on Diwali night (a 12-hour average from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am) was 118 ug m-3 , which was 23 times higher than the concentrations observed on the pre Diwali night.

Prafulla further warned that SO2 also causes irritation in the nose and mouth as it can form aggressive sulphur containing acids on reacting with moist surfaces inside the body leading to the destruction of the tissues.

In 2016, the ambient concentration of particulate matter (PM2.5) on Diwali night was as high as 1100 ugm-3 , which was five times higher than the concentrations observed on the pre –Diwali night. Particulate matter consists of tiny particles in the air that cause the air to appear hazy and reduce visibility.

Chemical and Risks

Barium nitrate: Health risks. Like all soluble barium compounds, barium nitrate is toxic by ingestion or inhalation. Symptoms of poisoning include tightness of muscles (especially in the face and neck), vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, muscular tremors, anxiety, weakness, labored breathing, cardiac irregularity, and convulsions.

Sulphur: It irritates the nose, throat, and airways to cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, or a tight feeling around the chest. The effects of sulfur dioxide are felt very quickly and most people would feel the worst symptoms in 10 or 15 minutes after breathing it in.

Potassium nitrate: Any contact with it can cause eye and skin irritation. Inhalation of its fumes can irritate the nose and throat, causing sneezing and coughing.

Aluminium powder: It can cause irritation to the eyes and respiratory tract.

The smaller the particles, the deeper they can penetrate into the respiratory system and the more hazardous they are to breathe. Particulate matter was declared as Class 1 cancer-causing agent (carcinogen) in 2013 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). PM2.5 particles cause lung irritation, aggravate chronic lung diseases, and cause changes in blood chemistry resulting in clots and cardiovascular diseases.

What doctors say

The annual light and sound festival can have quite an adverse impact on your health. Whether it manifests in the form of respiratory diseases, eye infections, or burns, doctors across hospitals in the tricity witness a sudden surge in the number of patients flocking to them.

Dr A K Janmeja, head of pulmonary medicine, GMCH, Sector 32, told HT, “The rise in air pollution during this period leads to a stark increase in respiratory problems among people, especially those suffering from asthma, bronchitis or other allergies.”

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Air pollution: The crackers, the heavy traffic and the burning of rice stubble by farmers take a heavy toll on the air. Air pollution goes up by at least 50% during Diwali.

Smog: The bursting of crackers also leads to smog (smoke + fog), which is not only injurious to health but also obstructs the vision and causes accidents.

Global warming: The oxides and dioxides of sulphur and nitrogen released while burning crackers are not only harmful to human health, but also harm the environment by depleting the Ozone layer, the earth’s protective shield.

Noise pollution: One of the most adverse effects of this festive season, it not only impacts human beings but also animals, including our pets, whose ears are more sensitive than humans.

Injuries and wounds: In many cases, people lose their eyesight and even lives by bursting crackers recklessly.

Garbage disposal: The garbage lying on roads after Diwali is laced with chemicals and very difficult to dispose of. This could impact the health of those living in the proximity as any contact with these chemicals can increase the level of toxins in the body.

Additional health hazards: Pregnant women are advised not to leave their homes during the bursting of crackers.

He added that the inflammation caused due to poor air quality makes it doubly difficult for people battling respiratory disorders.

The hospitals also see an increase in the number of accidents caused due to unruly traffic and choked roads, which prompt commuters to throw rules to the winds.

“Every year, we see a surge in the number of accident cases around Diwali,” said Dr Janmeja, adding that doctors work round the clock on the D-day to treat patients suffering from the side-effects of this festival.

Older people are more susceptible to flu or pneumonia during this period. Eye-related injuries and burns are commonplace among patients across all government and private hospitals during Diwali.

But while the Diwali air may not be healthy, the festive cheer does wonders for patients. Dr B S Chavan, head of psychiatry department, GMCH 32, said he had noticed a decline in mental health ailments and stress-related issues during this period.

“People are usually happy during such festivals as they get to spend time with their loved ones. Even if there are minor concerns, they overlook them to join in the festivities”

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