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Shocking Pollution during the Ganesh Festival

Water Pollution

Yesterday was an important day. It was Anant Chaturthi the culmination of a ten-day
long Ganesh Festival, one of the most important festivals of western India. It was a day of great
joyousness and celebration…but it has an ugly side. The environmental damage it causes.
Thousands of idols made from harmful materials like plaster of paris and toxic metals, coated
with deadly paints containing mercury, cadmium, lead and carbon enter our water bodies. These
idols, some of them gigantic in size, are immersed in lakes, rivers and the sea.

Just Mumbai’s sea takes in about 1.5 lakh (1

lakh = 100,000) idols every year! Is it any
wonder then then oxygen levels in the water
bodies fall by about 50 per cent immediately
after the 10-day Ganeshutsav festival?

Not many care

Although there are organisations working
towards creating awareness about the benefits
of using eco-friendly idols and state governments do issue ‘guidelines’ about immersions, not
much is happening on the ground. Although there are specially prepared tanks for
immersions, people don’t prefer to use these, and few are interested in eco-friendly idols. It
was heartening to see Harsha actually try and find out the situation on the ground. He trudged
four hours in the hot sun in Pune to find out if people were using eco-friendly idols. His

As I continued my search in the streets of Pune, I came across many idols-made of materials as
varied as PoP, Silver, Tin Foil and Thermocol, but not the green Ganesha. That’s what I was
looking idol made of clay and a pandal that used eco-friendly materials…I must have
walked for at least 20 km, clicking hundreds of pix on the way. I could not find a single idol made
of clay, nor a pandal which didn’t use the papi materials - PoP and Thermocol.

Well, finally he did find a green pandal, but no idol. This then is the reality. No one cares.
And we are not just talking of the masses here. I have tried to convince several people I know
and while they agreed with me in theory, none of them actually went and bought an eco-
friendly idol. In fact one lady told me point blank: When there is a law against it we’ll do it!
This even though they clearly see the water bodies around them getting polluted. I don’t
believe this is due to religious reasons, but due to apathy and lack of civic sense.

What actually happens?

Here are the results of a scientific study done on a body of water in Andhra Pradesh, the
Hussainsagar Lake. After examining the water before and after immersion the scientists
found that the concentration of substances like calcium, magnesium, molybdenum and silicon
concentrations increased significantly. Also, it was
found that concentrations of heavy metals like
arsenic, lead and mercury had increased. Metals
like lead and mercury are particularly worrisome as
they are dangerous to health and can damage the
heart, kidneys, liver, circulatory system and central
nervous system.

Besides polluting the water, they reach humans via

the food chain, when humans consume fish and
other sea-food. If the fish survive that is! Because
hundreds of fish are found dead after the

The picture on the right is of a beach right after an immersion and that is what the tide has
brought in. The site from where I took the photo has other very vivid pictures…if you want to
see them just click on the picture.

If people don’t listen, we need the laws

The problem is that politicians don’t want to take tough action as they are afraid of upsetting
the public as this is a religious issue. But I think it isn’t. Traditionally, we used mud idols and
natural colours. These polluting idols are a modern invention and nothing to do with religion!

No one is banning immersion. Or denouncing it. To put in place laws to make it compulsory
to make idols out of an eco-friendly material should not hurt religious sentiment. All we will
be doing is going back to the way the festival was traditionally celebrated. An information
campaign to this effect will go a long way in educating those who think that using poisonous
materials are what God commanded or that this was how it was traditionally done. I am sure
that a public information campaign which enumerates the amount of life that is destroyed will
impact a lot of people as quite a few Hindus are vegetarians who are against killing of
animals even for food.

I wonder if it is a powerful lobby of businessmen and those in the trade of manufacturing and
selling these poisonous idols who are making the politicians drag their feet on this one.
Because in this case it is only the politicians who can help us - with laws.

Firecracker Concerns

Nowadays there is a significant growth in campaigns on creating awareness over the adverse
impacts of noise and air pollution. Some governments drive to keep the festival less noisy and
pollution-free. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board has banned production of crackers
with noise levels of over 125 decibels.[16] In survey of UP Pollution Control Board, it was
revealed that the emission of smoke was found more in the light illuminating fire crackers.
Levels of SO2 (Sulphur dioxide) and RSPM (respirable suspended particulate matter) was
found marginally higher on Diwali day. Crackers, which use large quantities of sulphur and
paper, spew out sulphur dioxide and charcoal into the air, also lead and other metallic
substances are suspended in the air causing respiratory problems.[17] Considering these facts,
bursting of crackers is prohibited in silent zones i.e. near hospitals, schools and courts.

Major recent developments around the country

In September 2001, the Supreme Court passed orders seeking adherence to anti- noise
pollution norms and standards for fire crackers before the festival season.

The Delhi Pollution Control Committee sent a notification to the Delhi Police informing them
about the type of fire-crackers that violate the prescribed limit of 125 decibels at a distance of
4 meters from the point of bursting. It prohibits setting of crackers in the silence zones (that is
the areas within 100 meters of hospitals, educational institutions, courts and religious places).
Firecrackers can be burst only between 6pm to 10 pm.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) amended "noise pollution" defined in the
Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986 and banned the manufacture, sale and use of fire-
crackers generating noise levels exceeding 125 dB (AL) or 145 dB (C) notified in October
1999. But the amendment remains unimplemented till now.

The police authorities have been authorized to enforce the rules regarding noise pollution.
The Delhi High Court order seeking cracker manufacturers to print the noise level generated
by them on the wrapper by November 2000 remains unimplemented. We have banned 20
types of crackers that exceed 125 decibels. Any person who manufactures and stores them
will face prosecution, says Keshav Dwivedi, Deputy Commissioner Police. The police plans
to work closely with Delhi Pollution Control Committee to help police detect the noise levels.
People can complain at these control rooms, he added.

About 80 per cent of the fire-works sold in Delhi come from Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu while
the rest comes from Uttar Pradesh. In Chennai, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board has
taken cognizance of fire-crackers' menace and has issued orders prohibiting the crackers
violating decibel limits. The Board has also asked Fire Services and Rescue Operations Wing
to ban 'Rockets' -a fire- cracker responsible for accidents.

Maharashtra government strictly enforced Union Ministry of Environment and Forests

(MoEF) Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules, 2000 and Supreme Court's order
during Navaratri.

Ninety Five percent of the crackers violate the noise and pollution norms, says a study by
Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)-National Physical Laboratory. The four companies
that were studied are Rajaratnam Fireworks Industries, Cheeta Fireworks, Standard Fireworks
and Sri Kaliswari Fireworks. The results have been sent to State Pollution Control Boards
(SPCB) and the MoEF but are yet to be made public.

"Unless noise pollution standards are enforced at the place of manufacture, it is impossible to
regulate them", says D K Biswas, chairman, CPCB. "We have sent directions to the
Controller of Explosives to limit the number of licenses to sell fire crackers alongwith
missives to all SPCBs, Biswas said. Media has a role to play. The response from the
electronic media was totally unsatisfactory last year. Most channels aired short films on anti-
cracker awareness as and when it suited them. They were too busy generating money from
commercial ads to do their bit towards a social cause. Residents of Delhi have not adhered to
the deadlines", he added.

The Department of Explosives under the Ministry of Industry and Commerce ought to
regulate the grant of licenses to manufacturers of explosives, say experts. MoEF also shifts
the responsibility of enforcing the decibel standards on Department of Explosives.

The Gujarat High Court heard a noise pollution PIL after Navratri.

The West Bengal Pollution Control Board met on October 9 to minimize noise level during
Pujas in the aftermath of apex court imposed cracker curfew hour.

On Diwali day the noise levels touch a deafening 140 decibels, says Madhu Saxena of Voice,
a non-governmental orgaisation based in Delhi.

Delhi's Chief Minister launched anti-cracker campaign " This Diwali have a cracking time
without Crackers" and its Health minister leads an anti-cracker rally seeking abolition of
child labour in the manufacture of crackers.

The Haryana Pollution Control Board is seeking measurement of noise pollution in different
districts on 12, 14 and 16 November. Panipat has made all arrangements for its measurement,
says, O. P. Dahiya, District Pollution Officer, Panipat.

The Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB) organized a ten-day campaign
beginning from November 5 to bring awareness on the impact of noise pollution due to fire

More than 25 NGOs and 100 schools participated to take a oath against noise pollution.

The Tamilnadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association (TANFAMA) claims that
the restriction-90 decibels (AI)- imposed by the state pollution control board on fire-crackers
and other sound -polluting items was "incorrect and unscientific". The imposed ban goes
against the provisions of the Explosives Act, 1884 and Explosives Rules 1983, says K
Mariappan, secretary, TANFAMA.

Gitanath Ganguly, a PCB member quotes Supreme Court order dated 27th Septemeber, 2001
which said, " …this order shall not imply any restriction on the union government, union

territories or state governments in case they wish to further reduce the noise level of so

Laboratory tests:

To study the chemical composition, particularly of metallic and non-metallic components of

crackers, Toxics Link got some samples of sparklers ("phuljari" in Hindi and "mathappu" in
Tamil) and pots ("anar" in Hindi and "pusvanam" in Tamil) analysed at the Bombay Natural
History Society Laboratory, Mumbai. The following were the chief findings of the laboratory

The results showed presence of highly toxic heavy metals like cadmium and lead in addition
to other metals like copper, manganese, zinc, sodium, magnesium and potassium in the fire-

Both nitrates and nitrites of few of these metals were present. Both these radicals are
oxidising agents that are a ready source of oxygen in the process of combustion.

Oxides of sulphur in the form of sulphate and phosphorous in the form of phosphate were
present in the samples. The mean levels of cadmium in the crackers analysed were 5.2
mg/100g. Anar and wire showed 6 and 8mg/100g, respectively.

The mean level of lead was 462 mg/100g with a maximum in green sparkle showing
850mg/100g. Magnesium was found in huge quantities when compared to other metals like
copper, manganese and zinc. The mean levels of magnesium was 2622mg/100g and of copper

was 744mg/100g. Zinc was the least among the various metals detected with a mean level of

Four acidic radicals --nitrate, nitrite, phosphate and sulphate-- were also detected. The
proportion of nitrite, phosphate and sulphate in the crackers was almost similar and ranged
between 1160 to 1420 mg/100gm, while nitrates which are strong oxidising agents, were
found in considerable amounts when compared to the other three. Their mean levels were

Among these, oxides of sulphur, phosphorous and nitrogen are very corrosive and highly
acidic while carbon monoxide, one of the oxides of carbon is an extremely poisonous gas
whose presence cannot be detected by our sensory system as it is odorless.

Carbon monoxide combines more than 200 times as readily as oxygen, so that low
concentration levels have adverse health effects.

Health Effects

The level of suspended particles in the air increases alarmingly during Diwali, causing eye,
throat and nose problems. Although most of us do not feel the immediate impact, these
problems can later develop into serious health hazards, according to Dr Rajesh Chawla of
Apollo hospital, New Delhi.

Suspended particulate matter (SPM) exposure to the level of 100 ppm results in headache and
reduced mental acuity. The effects are more pronounced in people with heart, lung or central
nervous system diseases. Sulphur dioxide is readily soluble and dissolves in the larger

airways of the respiratory system. This stimulates a contraction at 2 to 5 parts per million
(ppm). At higher concentrations severe contraction restricts the breathing process.

Nitrogen dioxide is less soluble and so penetrates to the smaller airways and into the lungs.
They destroy the linings of the respiratory surface, thereby reducing the intake of oxygen for
the body. These cause respiratory allergies like asthma especially to the susceptible

Causes throat and chest congestion, and are likely to aggravate problems for those already
suffering from coughs, colds and allergies.

High decibel level results in restlessness, anger, fidgetiness, impulsive behaviour and over-
reaction to situations. Most crackers used have more than 80 dB noise that can cause
temporary hearing loss, says K K Agarwal, chairman, Health Care Foundation, New Delhi

Scientific data to suggests that noise pollution can cause leads to hearing loss, high blood
pressure, heart attack and sleep disturbances. Normal decibel level for humans is 60 dB. An
increase by 10 decibels means double the noise volume and intensity, says Agarwal.

Children, pregnant women and those suffering from respiratory problems suffer the most due
to excessive noise. It results in making them hyperactive or withdrawn, says Dr Jitendra
Nagpal, psychiatrist, Vidyasagar Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (VIMHAS),

Allergic bronchitis, acute exacerbation of bronchial asthma, chronic bronchitis, ephysema,

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases), allergic rhinitis, laryngitis, ssinusitis,

pneumonia and common cold increase durinf this times, reports Dr Naarendra B Rawal,
consultant chest physician and pulmonologist. The number of his patients doubles during
Diwali. The firework is one of the provoking factors for childhood bronchial asthma, he adds.

The Toxics Link study pointed out that there is threat of exposure even from the unburnt
material. These particles are very small (1 to 5 microns in size) and contain metals along with

Harmful effects of Chemicals Used in Crackers:

Copper: Poison to humans by ingestion. Inhalation of copper dust and fume causes irritation
in the respiratory tract. Absorption of excess copper results in "Wilson's disease" in which
excess copper is deposited in the brain, skin, liver, pancreas and myocardium (middle
muscular layer in the heart).

Cadmium: Can be poisonous to humans by inhalation, ingestion, intraperitonial, sub-

cutaneous, intra-muscular and intravenous routes. Cadmium absorption can damage the
kidneys and can cause anaemia. It is a potential human carcinogen. Cadmium causes
increased blood pressure and also a disease called "Itai--Itai", which makes bones brittle
resulting in multiple fractures.

Lead: Affects the central nervous system in humans. A poison if ingested, moderately
irritating. It can cause cancer of lungs and kidneys and an experimental teratogen. When
heated it can emit highly toxic fumes. In inorganic form, it is a general metabolic poison and
an enzyme inhibitor. Young children can suffer mental retardation and semi-permanent brain
damage by exposure to lead. Incase of lead levels in blood, the disturbing feature is that the
natural levels are very close to the lowest safety limits.

Magnesium: Poison by ingestion, inhalation of magnesium dust and fumes can cause metal
fume fever. Particles embedded in the skin can produce gaseous blebs and a gas gangrene.
Dangerous fire hazard in the form of dust or flakes when exposed to flames. Manganese in
the air has adverse effects on humans. Poisoning takes the form of progressive deterioration
in the central nervous system.

Manganese: An experimental carcinogen and mutagen. Human toxicity caused by dust or

fumes. The main symptoms of exposure are languor, sleepiness, weakness, emotional
disturbances, spastic gait and paralysis.

Potassium: Dangerous fire hazard. If there is any confinement, an explosion can occur.

Sodium: In elemental form, it is highly reactive, particularly with moisture with which it
reacts violently and therefore can attack living tissue. When heated in air, it emits toxic fumes
of sodium oxide. Dangerous fire hazard when exposed to heat and moisture.

Zinc: Human skin irritant and effects pulmonary system. Pure zinc powder is non-toxic to
humans by inhalation but difficulty arises from oxidation (burning), as it emits zinc fumes.
Zinc is perhaps the least toxic of all heavy metals, in fact an essential element in animal and
human nutrition, still they become toxic when absorbed in excess. Zinc stimulates the
sensation of vomiting. An exposure to 150 mg of zinc can stimulate the process of vomiting
in an adult male.

Nitrate: Large amounts taken by mouth can have serious and even fatal effects. The
symptoms are dizziness, abdominal cramps, vomiting, bloody diarrhoea, weakness,

convulsions and collapse. Small repeated doses may lead to weakness, general depression,
headache and mental impairment. Also there is some implication of increased cancer
incidents among those exposed. Highly inflammable and on decomposition they emit highly
toxic fumes.

Nitrite: Large amounts taken by mouth may produce nausea, vomiting, cyanosis, collapse and
coma. Repeated small doses can cause a fall in blood pressure, rapid pulse, headaches and
visual disturbances. When heated, emit highly toxic fumes of NOx.

Phosphorous in PO4: Poison to humans. Dangerous fire hazard when exposed to heat or
chemical reaction. Poison by inhalation, ingestion, skin contact and subcutaneous routes.
Ingestion affects the central nervous system. Toxic quantities have an acute effect on the liver
and can cause severe eye damage.

Sulphur in SO4: Poison to humans by inhalation an eye, skin and mucous membrane irritant
and corrosive, an experimental carcinogen. It chiefly affects the upper respiratory tract and
the bronchi. It may cause edema of the lungs or glottis, and can produce respiratory paralysis.
Source: Hazardous Chemicals Desk Reference, N.Irving Sax and Richard J.Lewis

The conflict between competing interests in society - safety, health, and calm on the one
hand, and tradition on the other hand, has evolved over time, and the health effects are
receiving greater attention. Roshan Lal, owner of the New Royal Fireworks set up in 1928 in
Sadar Bazar says his family has been in the trade of crackers since the days of Prthviraj
Chauhan but now the business is not profitable. A combination of political will and public
support to limit health and environmental hazards, and at the same time maintain memorable
traditions, is needed to restore Deepawali to its pristine flavour.