Diwali is one of the most widely observed festivals in India and is celebrated by lighting diyas and lamps, making rangolis, and eating great food, especially sweets. Lighting firecrackers is the highlight of Diwali and people across faiths and communities do this to ring in the festivities. Unfortunately, while the colours and lights are dazzling, it also comes at a huge cost, considering how it affects our health. Firecrackers leave behind toxic particles that are dangerous for everyone, especially those people living with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and bronchitis.
Every year during Diwali, the air pollution levels, especially in Delhi, the National Capital Region (NCR) and other large cities elsewhere, increase to unsafe and dangerous levels, as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO). And one of the major reasons for this is the lighting of firecrackers. Firecrackers pose a serious health hazard which, at this time of the pandemic, can get worse.
How do fumes from firecrackers affect the lungs?
As per a study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, the different colours and effects in fireworks are achieved when a combination of metallic particles that include aluminium, barium, copper, strontium, antimony, lead, magnesium, and potassium are mixed with gunpowder. On burning, along with excessive smoke, these metallic particles are shredded into tiny pieces of size even smaller than a few microns. These metallic particles, if inhaled, can sit deeply in the lungs resulting in toxicity.
According to an article published in the official journal of the Indian Chest Society, Lung India, the six most common firecrackers (snake tablet, string, ground spinner, flower pot and the garland of crackers) in India produce high amounts of particulate matters (PM), which are tiny particles or droplets of pollution in the air, usually seen after combustion. Exposure to this particulate matter can result in both short-term and long-term health effects. These harmful effects are more prevalent in children, elder people and those with underlying health conditions such as chronic lung diseases or cardiovascular diseases.
When air pollutants such as PM2.5, PM10, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide enter the body, they form reactive oxygen species which initiate oxidative stress in the lungs. To cope with this, the immune system of the body deploys immune cells to the lungs, which result in inflammatory reactions within the lungs.
Why is it more important than ever to celebrate Diwali without firecrackers this year?
COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel Coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, has wreaked havoc across the globe. The Coronavirus mainly affects the lungs and people with pre-existing conditions, especially respiratory diseases, should take extra care. The toxic air that firecrackers emit can increase the risk of complexities for people infected with COVID-19 or those vulnerable to it. A study by Harvard University and another published in the journal Cardiovascular Research stated that exposure to air pollution increases the risk of mortality and severe symptoms of COVID-19. In addition to this, scientists are anticipating an increase in the spread of the disease during winters as the cold weather would allow the virus to survive for longer durations and the lack of ventilation (due to closed windows) would facilitate easier transmission of the virus.
Furthermore, this is also the time of the year where farmers in parts of the country burn crop stubbles after harvest season, further degrading the air quality in nearby cities and surrounding states.
Firecracker fumes further add to the misery and deteriorates the air quality further, elevating the risk of COVID-19 transmission and worsening pre-existing health conditions for certain people. The increased pollutants in the air can cause exacerbations, and irritate the air passage resulting in coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, asthma attacks and pain in the chest.
What can be done to protect the lungs during this festival?
To prevent further rise in pollution levels, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has restricted the use of crackers during Diwali in various parts of the country. This will be highly beneficial to tackle the air quality problems at this time of the year. In the meantime, there are certain things that one can do to protect their lungs from harmful pollutants:
- Avoid lighting candles and diyas indoors, which keep indoor pollution in check. One can use sustainable LED lights as they do not release particulate matter, but can also illuminate the house beautifully.
- Stay indoors as much as possible and do not open the doors and windows during the festival as it would allow the pollutants to enter the house.
- If one needs to step out of their house, they must wear a good quality mask, preferably N95, N99 or N100 masks as they are highly efficient in filtering out the tiny particulate matters from the air
- Invest in an air purifier as it can be very useful under the present circumstances, given the air quality in several large Indian cities. Air purifiers filter out the pollutants, toxins and allergens from indoor air.
- Eat healthy, and consume foods loaded with antioxidants and vitamin C-rich foods (lemon, amla and tomatoes), turmeric, vitamin E, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids as they may help neutralize the effect of pollutants in the body by reducing the oxidative stress.
- Choose sweets with jaggery (instead of refined sugar) as it is a good source of iron and can help in improving the haemoglobin level in the blood, resulting in an overall increase in its oxygen-carrying capacity.
- People with pre-existing respiratory conditions must keep their emergency medicines, nebulizers and other health kits handy at all times.
- Any person suffering from a persistent cough, wheezing or breathlessness must reach out to a doctor.
This Diwali, people in many cities are planning to heed the government’s call and celebrate the spirit of Diwali with sweets and lights, sans the firecrackers. This could go a long way in controlling the air quality levels in our cities and communities, and greatly help those people living with lung diseases or those at high risk.
For the ones who have been affected despite the precautions and are seeing their condition worsen during or after Diwali, it may be prudent to consult a pulmonologist immediately and not wait for their condition to worsen.