Anti-noise activist urges state government to consider their ill-effects during pandemic
Geetanjali Minhas | November 7, 2020 | Mumbai
As the Maharashtra government has appealed people to avoid the use of firecrackers during the Diwali season amid the Covid-19 pandemic, health minister Rajesh Tope Saturday said the government would formally come out with a decision to ban firecrackers on Sunday.
The expected ban would be a welcome development for environmentalists and activists working to contain noise pollution. Sumaira Abdulali, an anti-noise activist and president of Awaaz Foundation, in her letter Friday to chief minister Uddhav Thackeray and environment minister Aditya Thackerey had urged the government to ban the use of fireworks and firecrackers during Diwali as hazardous and toxic materials in these items become components of air pollution when released in the air and cause serious health complications.
Awaaz Foundation tested in a private laboratory 30 commonly available crackers and compared their chemical composition with the entries listed in Schedule I (‘List of Hazardous and Toxic Chemicals’) of the ‘Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules 1989’ under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.
The testing details the chemical content where there is a significant proportion of the chemical present. These chemicals also form oxides some of which are extremely toxic to human health including sulphur trioxide, vanadium pentoxide, potassium oxides and copper oxides and all are listed as toxic under the Rules. Additionally the use of barium has been banned by a 2018 order of the supreme court.
In her letter, Abdulali said that fireworks contain explosive, flammable material to create displays of light, noise and smoke. Pyrotechnic effects of fireworks are based on the combustion of a solid fuel by asalt (barium nitrate and potassium nitrate, commonly used in India) with substances such as charcoal and sulphur to produce heat and light. Magnesium powder, aluminium powder and titanium turnings are used for extra sparkle and flash to achieve brilliant effects. Colours and special effects are achieved by addition of various metals and chemicals in varying quantities. When ignited, they oxidise and can be extremely dangerous to human health.
The tests found following metals and chemicals, many of which are listed as ‘Hazardous and Toxic Chemicals’ in Schedule 1 of the Hazardous Chemicals Rules notified under the Environment Protection Act, 1986:
Sodium – produces gold and yellow colours
Potassium Nitrate – used as fuel is carcinogenic and leaves toxic dust
Magnesium – produces bright white flames
Calcium – deepens the colour of other elements
Strontium – brings red colour and helps stabilise and oxidise mixtures, can be radioactive and replace calcium in human body
Barium – produces green colours and help stabalize other volatile elements. Extremely poisonous and radioactive
Titanium – helps produce sparks
Copper – produces blue colours
Zinc - contributes to creating smoke clouds and other effects
Aluminium – helps produce silver and white sparks and flames to make black powder, is combustible element which in some forms ignites spontaneously in air making it dangerous to work with; can cause dermatitis on contact
Antimony – helps create glitter effects
Sulphur trioxide – fuels acid rain, affects water sources
Lead – oxidizer, poisonous to plants, animals and humans, development danger to children and bioaccumulation
The National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) has developed two types of firecrackers which do not use barium and are certified as ‘green crackers’, the activist noted. “Unfortunately while procuring over 40 types of crackers this year, no ‘green crackers’ were available in the market. When requested to supply green crackers, those which burst with the colour green were offered. On analysis, these green (coloured) crackers were found to contain a number of hazardous chemicals including the banned chemical, barium.”
Results of several other tested samples are pending, and Awaaz expects to come out with them soon. The NGO’s detailed tests of firecrackers by a leading private laboratory, Italab, in 2015 found the presence of mercury – one of the most dangerous toxins even in very small quantities in tested samples. “This type of testing would take a longer time to execute and results will follow,” says Abdulali.
She adds that that the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) has also independently carried out tests on the same samples provided to them by Awaaz Foundation for the fourth consecutive year. However, these test results have never been made public.
The joint annual noise pollution testing by Awaaz Foundation and MPCB for the last decade was postponed until further notice by the board. “The results of joint testing done in 2019 indicate very high levels of noise pollution of most tested crackers, making them unsuitable for use in any residential area… Most crackers had noise levels above 100 dB. Many did not contain the decibel levels or chemical composition displayed on the box as required by a supreme court order,” says Abdulali.
‘‘In 2020, when Covid-19 has already had disastrous effects on the health of the whole world including India, the government of Maharashtra has imposed numerous measures to safeguard the health of its citizens including complete lockdown for an extended period of time. The Covid-19 pandemic, a respiratory illness sometimes leading to death is a clear danger in the present time. Firecrackers independently present health risks including elevated risk of respiratory disease and they can compromise recovery of patients of other respiratory illness such as Covid-19. All festivals in Mumbai this year were celebrated in an eco-friendly manner, without the use of loudspeakers, in a demonstration of (responsible) celebrations and in accordance with environmental and health requirements. These included the festivals of Ganpati, Eid-e-Milad and others,” says the letter.
“I request the government of Maharashtra to consider the serious hazard to human health indicated by the test result of hazardous chemicals contained in firecrackers which can be released as breathable air pollution. In addition, I request the government to consider the extremely high noise levels of firecrackers tested jointly with MPCB in 2019, making them unsuitable for use in residential areas. In these times of Covid-19, firecrackers are even more dangerous for use due to their contribution to air and noise pollution and most particularly on respiratory health. I request the GoM to ban the use of all firecrackers with immediate effect,” says Abdulali in her letter.
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