Green firecrackers may not be that green after all, finds a survey in Mumbai

Print edition : December 18, 2020

Children light firecrackers during Diwali, in Mumbai on November 14. Photo: FRANCIS MASCARENHAS/REUTERS

Green firecrackers developed by CSIR have 30 per cent less emissions, but there is still a long way to go in reducing air and noise pollution.

In 2018 the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) developed what it termed as green firecrackers, the effectiveness and use of which have been a subject of debate. It has now been reawakened with the problem of respiratory ailments caused by COVID-19.

The CSIR claims that green crackers have 30 per cent less emissions than conventional ones. Its research focussed on reducing the particulate matter that is released when a cracker bursts and remains in the air for hours along with toxic compounds. It is this that aggravates respiratory ailments. The hybrid crackers developed by the CSIR use less polluting raw materials whose chemical formulations ensure a suppression of dust so that when the cracker explodes there are reduced particle emissions in the air.

This was done by tackling the problem of oxidising agents that aid in the explosion. The commonly used oxidisers are potassium nitrate and barium nitrate which are highly polluting. In 2017, the Supreme Court said that if a cracker manufacturer wished to label products as green these oxidisers could not be used. The apex court also banned the use of arsenic, mercury, lead, antimony and lithium in firecrackers.

A cracker can also be labelled green only if the manufacturer and the CSIR have inked an agreement that stipulates the use of the green cracker formulation. Until February this year more than 200 firecracker companies had signed up to manufacture these.

Types of green crackers

There are three types of green crackers. Safe Water Releasers (SWAS) release water vapour during explosion and dilute the dust particles. Since they do not use potassium nitrate or sulphur, the particulate matter released is about 30 to 35 per cent—the least of all the three categories.

Safe Thermite (STAR) crackers use less thermite, the fuel in conventional crackers. And Safe Minimal Aluminium (SAFAL) crackers have minimal usage of aluminium (only in flash powder for initiation). All three have matching sound intensity in the range of 110 to 115 decibels as in conventional crackers. Loud noise over 120 decibels can permanently damage hearing, but it is also worth noting that continuous noise (as happens during Diwali) of over 70 decibels can also be damaging.

But how effective are green crackers really in terms of air and noise pollution?

Sumaira Abdulali of the Awaaz Foundation, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works in preventing environmental pollution, including air and noise pollution, conducted a survey testing commonly available firecrackers in Mumbai and found that “all 28 tested crackers contain hazardous chemicals banned under the Hazardous Chemicals Rules”. This led to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) banning the use of all but green crackers in the city. The corporation also banned the use of firecrackers in public spaces, restricting their use to private residential areas.

Next, the Awaaz Foundation “procured ‘Green crackers’ in the market, including sparklers, chakris and anars, which have been allowed for use in residential areas. The BMC circular specifies these crackers are used mostly by children.” The test results showed “that all tested ‘green crackers’ (including those bearing the ‘green cracker’ stamp of NEERI [the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, which developed barium-free formulations] contain banned chemicals, including barium nitrate banned by the Supreme Court in October 2018, potassium nitrate and sulphur.”

In a letter to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and Environment Minister Aditya Thackeray, Sumaira Abdulali says, “It is truly shocking that the test results of ‘green crackers’ (which children are encouraged to use) are further validated by the open display of their banned chemical content on their own packaging. Such crackers, causing serious illnesses, including respiratory illness, worsening the effects of COVID-19, are unsuitable for use, specially by children and sufferers of respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19. They also violate the October 2016 order of the Supreme Court [suspending the sale of polluting firecrackers].”

Sumaira Abdulali further says, “Air pollution trends in previous years show that, due to weather patterns, the air quality of Mumbai worsens immediately on Diwali and continues to be in the bad category for most of the winter. The pollutants which [were] emitted this Diwali, including harmful and banned toxins, will likely continue to worsen the effects of COVID-19 for the next several months to come…. The government, while acknowledging the added complications of firecrackers on COVID-19 sufferers, has permitted harmful crackers into people’s hands. The responsibility for strict implementation at time of use falls squarely on them.”

Green crackers were developed to achieve a balance between the public pressure to celebrate Diwali and the need to be sensitive to health and the environment. But the findings of the tests prove that there is still a long way to go.