Sci-Tech

How green was my Diwali?

Strontium nitrate is used to get the red colour and barium for green light.

Strontium nitrate is used to get the red colour and barium for green light.   | Photo Credit: R. Ragu

Many countries have placed several restrictions on the use of firecrackers

About 80 years ago, Richard Llewellyn wrote the book ‘How Green Was My Valley’. This bestseller novel described how a mining town in Wales progressively deteriorated through deep and extensive mining into a contaminated shell. Some recent developments regarding (a) the use of firecrackers during Deepavali time, (b) the attendant noise and environmental pollution, exacerbating the already deadly air quality in many parts of India, and (c) the Supreme Court direction about the use of only ‘green’ crackers, and that too, only during two hours at night (which, too, was not honoured) reminds one of the Llewellyn’s book.

What is a ‘green’ firecracker? It is one that should not contain elements such as lithium, antimony, lead, mercury and some others, which cause environmental and personal health issues. It also should not have high power explosives such as perchlorate, periodate and barium. This direction was given by the court, based on the recommendations of the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization (PESO) of India. Yet, as on date, Green firecrackers are not in the market. The Tamilnadu Firework and Amorces Manufacturers Association (TANFAMA) employs almost 1 million people working in over 850 factories, with an annual turnover of Rs 5,000 crores. And TANFAMA declares that they do not use perchlorates and several of the above poisonous metals (which the Chinese manufactures do and export to India). They say that they use potassium nitrate, sulphur, aluminium powder and barium nitrate. Strontium nitrate is used for producing red colour, aluminium for sparkles and aluminium with sulphur for the cracker noise. Barium is used for the green colour. (By the way, this green is different from ‘green’, which is meant to be safe and environmentally less harmful; reading through this reminds one of the Borax Bead test done in college inorganic chemistry labs.) Red lead and bismuth oxide are also used. The TANFAMA website claims that the noise level of their products (about 125 decibels or db) is less than the European standard limit (131db).

Perchlorate and barium

Perchlorate, which has been used as an excellent explosive agent, is unfortunately very unsafe. It is known to affect thyroid gland function (by inhibiting the uptake of iodine) and might also be carcinogenic (Asha Srinivasan and T.Viraraghavan (Int. J. Env. Res. Pub. Health, 1414, 2009). A more recent paper analysed the contamination of ground water from fireworks manufacturing areas in southern India (Isobe et al., Env. Monitoring Assessment, October 2012) and found the levels of perchlorate in ground water and tap water in the fireworks factory area was significantly higher than safety limits. Thankfully, perchlorate is no longer used by firework makers in India; the import of crackers containing perchlorate needs to be banned.

Indian manufactures still use barium. This too is not ‘green’ but toxic. A population-based study found significant increases in the risk of death from cardiovascular (heart) disease in people above 65, who live in areas where drinking water has high levels of barium. That barium intake may affect the kidneys leading to neuropathy has been shown in rats and mice. One awaits data on how these are translatable to humans. Likewise, there is some worry about bismuth. While bismuth is less toxic than lead or antimony, bismuth-poisoning is shown to affect the kidney, liver and bladder. Here again the toxic levels need to be determined; see , for instance,

metalpedia.asianmetal.com/

metal/bismuth/health.shtml

Delhi and its neighbouring states ahead suffer from terrible air quality (in terms of suspended polluting particles, automobile exhaust, smoke and smog) making them unsafe to live; many other cities across the country are sadly turning out to be mini-Delhis. To add to this is the practice of firecracker-burning, not only during festivals but even during marriages and community events round the year. We Indians seem to like to make noise and pollute the environment; any amount of restrictions by the city, State and the Supreme Court are not obeyed. Correction can come only from the individual, family, community and the obedience of law. Celebrations for us seem to mean noise and even more noise.

Other countries

Why is this true for Indian living in India and not elsewhere? Saptarshi Dutta wrote last year (in swachhindia.ndtv.com) on ‘Regularizing and restricting sales and usage of firecrackers. What India can learn from these countries’. Many European countries, Vietnam, Singapore, UK and Ireland allow the purchase of firecrackers only around festival days (such as Christmas, National Day, Chinese New Year, Diwali). Many of the 50 states in USA have their own restrictions on the type of firecrackers and permit use not by individuals but by the community/city/state. Australia restricts the type of firecrackers (no air borne, no large explosion) and New Zealand permits fireworks only for four days of the year.

If Indians abroad obey these rules, why do we not do so in India? Unless the mindset changes, we cannot make a Swachh Bharat, despite whatever rules are imposed. To argue that faith and traditions need to be preserved holds no water. Concessions have been made by the governments both abroad and at home towards this. If firecrackers need to be burnt as a religious rite (is it?), why not do so with a token amount for a token time, and thus not defile the environment?

As we dip the Lord Ganesha idols in rivers and lakes, do we worry about whether they are environment-friendly? They were in earlier times, when we used mud to make these idols. What we do now is huge, environment-unfriendly and more exhibitionist than religious. Keerthik Sasidharan wrote in The Hindu (November 18): “As rivers have become sites where the sacred and polluted coexist, our beliefs about the sacred no longer correspond with our intuitions about sanctity. How can devotees let the river become polluted, and does the pollution itself not render the river less sacred?”

As we blow firecrackers, do we worry about the attendant pollution? Is air not sacred?

dbala@lvpei.org

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Printable version | May 28, 2020 1:09:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/how-green-was-my-diwali/article25586352.ece

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