War with Fireworks

Firecrackers is a device that contains gunpowder and other combustible chemicals that causes striking effects and when ignited, the device explodes. In India, firecrackers consist of maroons, atom bombs, flowerpots, pencils and sparkles. Currently, the fireworks industry in India is pegged at ₹180,00 million per annum with a manufacturing hub at Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu.

Firecrackers are source of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide emissions  as well as of particulates. Firecrackers contain tiny metal particles. These metals are burned to produce colour for fireworks: copper  for blue, strontium  or lithium for red, and barium compounds  for bright green or white. When firecrackers are set off in the air, a large number of incompletely combusted metal particles get released that are harmful and remain in the air for a long time. Apart from pollution, firecrackers produce considerable noise. I am sure most would agree.

When fireworks residue falls on the ground it also has negative effects. One of the main fuel sources in fireworks is perchlorate , a chemical that has high water solubility, fluidity and stability. Due to its high-water solubility, perchlorate may pollute watercourses and remain persistent for years.

The adverse effects of fireworks on human health and the environment are now clear. The most apparent effect of fireworks is on the respiratory system. These symptoms are more likely to occur in children and the elderly, who are less able to defend themselves against air pollutants. Research in India has shown that the number of patients with respiratory diseases such as asthma and bronchitis increase by 30 to 40 per cent during the period when fireworks are heavily used.

Roots of using firecrackers can be traced in China in the seventh century. The idea was to scare the demons and be protected. Firecrackers were burst in celebrating the new year or express joy collectively when enjoying victory.

The idea of banning fireworks in China first appeared in the 1980s. In 1984, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China  promulgated the “Regulations on the Administration of Civil Explosives”. After several amendments of this regulation, a legislation was proposed to strictly ban fireworks and firecrackers. Accordingly, in 1993, the local law on “Regulations on Banning Fireworks and Firecrackers in Beijing” was discussed and executed at the sixth session of the Tenth Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress .

However, the atmosphere of the Spring Festival began to desalinate with the banning of fireworks. In December 2003,  Qingdao City, in east China’s Shandong Province , revised the original “ban” policy for fireworks and firecrackers, stipulating that fireworks and firecrackers could be used during the Spring Festival. Most residents supported lifting of the ban. Bans were therefore changed to “three limits”; that is, in a limited time, approved places, and only for certain varieties of fireworks and firecrackers. By the end of 2006, more than 200 cities in China had changed from the ban on fireworks to limited ban. Bans generally don’t work. We all know the failures of bans on the use of single use plastic. In this COVID-19 pandemic, these bans are no more effective.

Due to serious air pollution in Beijing however, on the eve of the Spring Festival in 2014, 70% of 115 respondents surveyed said they did not buy any fireworks and firecrackers. More than 80% believed that fireworks had a serious impact on air quality. Since December 2017, the central areas of most cities upgraded restricted fireworks to a total ban for fireworks, and the scope of fireworks prohibition areas has been gradually expanded. Since January 2018, in China, fireworks are banned in 444 cities nationwide.

Anyone who wishes to buy firecrackers or fireworks to celebrate the Chinese New Year -beginning on Feb. 5, 2019 will have to present their identity document, a measure being seen as a deterrent to prevent fireworks-related accidents that are common in China. Stores will have devices to identify and register buyers, who will be held accountable in case of an incident.

In India, as directed by National Green Tribunal, fireworks during Diwali have been banned or restricted.  To reduce the pollution and noise generated by firecrackers, National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) developed green crackers that emit particulates at a 30% lesser intensity than the conventional firecrackers. Green firecrackers release water vapour and do not allow the dust particles to rise.  Further while conventional firecrackers emit about 160 decibels of sound power, green crackers limit to noise to 110-125 decibels.

These green firecrackers have been named as Safe Water Releaser (SWAS), Safe Thermite Cracker (STAR) and Safe Minimal Aluminium (SAFAL). Particulate emissions of these firecrackers are lower by 30-35 per cent in SWAS and 35 to 40 per cent in SAFAL and STAR. The green firecrackers eliminate the use of potassium nitrate and sulphur. In SAFAL, aluminium is minimally used. The green crackers are also free of mercury, arsenic and barium. Only green firecrackers are permitted for use during Diwali.

NEERI has issued more than 500 “emission test certificates” to different firecracker manufacturers. In addition to testing by NEERI , the manufacturers have to then obtain an ‘approval for manufacturing’ from Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO). NEERI has signed agreements with more than 230 companies to manufacture the crackers and make them available for sale. Unfortunately, due to less time available to cope up, fireworks industry in Sivakasi is unable to manufacture green firecrackers on the scale required and is facing severe financial loss. In addition, there are challenges due to COVID-19 pandemic. Sales of conventional firecrackers have significantly come down and green firecrackers cost about 20% more than traditional crackers.

Despite introduction of bans, Chinese made green firecrackers are still seen in Indian market. According to scientists at IICT, Hyderabad, the so-called green firecrackers from China are not green. It was found that these firecrackers are more harmful than the traditional firecrackers made in India.

Currently, QR codes on green firecracker packages are missing. In addition, absence of high-quality holograms makes difficult for the inspectors to identify spurious green firecrackers.

I briefed my Professor friend on this “war with fireworks” based on my research. I also added that people are not happy with limited variety of green crackers. “They are only three types of green crackers and that is disappointing,” most said. Many said that banned conventional crackers including Chinese crackers are still available in the market and people are ending up buying them because of the lack of variety in green crackers.

Professor lighted his cigar and said

“Firstly, we must congratulate NEERI to come up with green firecrackers and take efforts to support the fireworks industry in Sivakasi. We cannot afford to shut down this industry.  So, research and technology transfer on green firecrackers to fireworks industry must continue. As regards your point that people are not happy with only three types of green firecrackers, aren’t people in India tolerating with just two options of political parties for the national governance? So I am only amused”

I couldn’t disagree.

“But Dr Modak, the war is actually on something different”

Professor took a deep puff and continued.

“Chinese believe that noise and fireworks dispel evil spirits that lurk around to ensure a prosperous and fortunate year. Chinese think that cultural traditions have become fragile in modern society. Once they disappear, it is difficult to return and follow traditions once again. This was the reason why regulations on fireworks were relaxed between 2006 and 2017. There was a fear of losing on the traditions just because of the concerns on air pollution. China now believes that fireworks manufacturers should improve the quality (like we did by developing green firecrackers) and make their products less polluting. The local government should severely punish the violators, increase awareness on the harmful effects and risks to safety while setting off fireworks. So, in China it was more of a war to protect traditions and it was won by air pollution!”

I thought the Professor was right. But I couldn’t resist asking

“Professor, but we in India never had a tradition of bursting firecrackers like the Chinese did following certain belief. So why the fuss and craze for bursting fireworks during Diwali?”

Professor smiled.

“I leave to you Dr Modak to think about why”

He then paused and said like a closing

“We must take efforts for the coexistence of our environment and our traditional culture”

I did not know whether Professor was referring to the Ganesh Festival, this time.

Indeed, we are already in this war by promoting Eco-friendly Ganesha. But we have so many festivals to “war with”!

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  1. The Indian hindu tradition about Diwali time fireworks is : Diwali is all about worshipping the Goddess Laxmi. Laxmi is considered to be “chanchal” in nature and likes all jazzy things. Since the festival is on a no-moon day (amavasya) the fire crackers are all about noise, being jazzy, colourful and lights. the fire crackers served as part of her worship. With increased urban pollution a stage has come to ban them in India and China with poor air quality record of Delhi and Shanghai respectively.

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