A single sparkler (phuljhadi) emits 10,390 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) of ultrafine particulate matter (PM2.5) within just two minutes of being lit, a ground spinner (chakri) emits 9,490 µg/m3 in five minutes and a flowerpot (anaar) emits 4,860 µg/m3 in three minutes of being set on fire, according to estimates by the Chest Research Foundation, Pune.
While the national 24-hour PM2.5 standard is just 60 µg/m3, Delhi, using just some of these firecrackers are enough to expose people to toxic smoke that experts said trigger not just immediate discomfort, but illnesses that develop over a longer period. On Sunday, many in Delhi wantonly violated the ban on firecrackers, plunging the Capital’s air quality from the cleanest levels seen in years to the worst deterioration for any day after Diwali, if concentration of PM2.5 particulate matter is taken into account.
“Firecrackers weaken our immunity and cause much more inflammation when compared to the same amount of PM2.5 emitted from automobiles and other sources. A firecracker produces more than 40 to 400 times the amount of harmful gases as compared to a cigarette. We must change our behaviour of bursting firecrackers to benefit ourselves and the environment,” said Dr GC Khilnani, chairperson, PSRI Institute of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine and member, technical advisory group, World Health Organisation (WHO) global air pollution and health.
For those with preexisting medical conditions, such extreme exposure could be a nightmare, landing them in the emergency room. Prolonged exposure can cause immediate and long-term effects within minutes — among healthy individuals, high pollution levels can impact the brain, and circulatory system and also increase the risk of early cancers by several times.
“The impact of such high amounts of firecrackers being burst will not be immediately seen in the OPDs. We will be able to provide a better picture in the weeks to come… Children are far more impacted by such immense pollution. We have seen that from minor symptoms such as recurrent cold and cough to more severe impacts such as asthma, development disorders, cancers and even premature deaths among children,” said Dr Vivek Nangia, principal director and head of the institute of respiratory and critical care medicine, Max Hospital, Saket.
He added that people are not only at risk from PM2.5 released from firecrackers, but ingredients such as oxidisers, fuel, colouring agents and binders also have debilitating effects on health. While masks — N95 and N99 — can provide some protection against PM2.5, the gases, which are also byproducts of bursting firecrackers, escape the filters in the masks.
An analysis by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) highlighted that antimony sulphide — the chemical compound which produces the glitter effect in firecrackers — is a known carcinogen and can cause a nauseating feeling after short-term exposure. In the long run, it can cause cancer. Similarly, aluminium, which creates the white light, leads to contact dermatitis and bioaccumulation. Barium nitrate and lithium compounds, also commonly used, are among the most toxic as they cause immediate respiratory stress.