Every year we see a spike in air pollution levels of all pollutant types. The source of this pollution is the crackers and fireworks that are let off in celebration of Diwali.
There has been some reports in the media that pollution contributed by Diwali fireworks and crackers is a drop in the ocean compared to industry, power stations, cars and crop burning. In this respect, the reports are accurate, banning fireworks and crackers will not reduce pollution levels when looked on a yearly average.
However, the week leading up to Diwali, and on Diwali itself, is one of the most toxic days of the year for every city in India when it comes to air pollution. The concentration of PM2.5 particles, the most harmful type that can do actual physical damage as it’s able to get into your bloodstream, is off the charts. It’s 15 to 20 times higher than the maximum permissible level. This is just one pollutant out of a whole variety of pollutants that can do harm to human health.
So no, banning fireworks and crackers isn’t going to solve India’s bigger, and more serious pollution problems. Additionally, crackers are part of the celebration of Diwali today – it may not have been in the past, but traditions and customs evolve, and crackers are an essential part of the celebration now. However, discouraging their sale in the form of taxes will help stop our cities turning into toxic, poisonous places to live for one week each year. If fireworks were rationed, it would stop people buying countless number of boxes and setting them off.
A better solution would be for the local authorities to arrange large, public firework displays for people to enjoy along with distributing warnings on the boxes of fireworks about the health damage done by setting off crackers – much in the same way that tobacco companies have to do on their packages.
Delhi Diwali Air Pollution
Delhi’s air pollution is hazardous at the best of times, the smoke from crackers just adds to an already dangerous level of air pollutants. This year the Supreme Court took the unusual step of banning the sale of crackers and fireworks in Delhi. This seems shortsighted and risks dividing the public. Did it have any impact though?
Delhi 17th October Air Pollution
The chart below shows the typical air quality in Delhi. according to the US Embassy air pollution monitoring station. The monitoring station measures the concentration of PM2.5 in the air and converts it into a benchmarkable Air Quality Index between 0 and 500. In the run up to Diwali, Delhi’s air quality was – as usual – very unhealthy. This means that everyone, regardless of age, should avoid outdoor exertion.
Delhi 19th October Air Pollution
AQI recorded 'severe' in Delhi after Diwali celebrations
— ANI Digital (@ani_digital) October 20, 2017
On Diwali, the pollution during the day was not out of the ordinary either. Very unhealthy, which is why an air purifier in the winter months is as much a necessity as an air conditioner in the summer.
Things deteriorated rapidly in the evening an into the morning of 20th October as the American Air Quality Index (AQI) surpassed its upper limit of 500 and reached almost 1,000. This means that the concentration of PM2.5 particles was around 15 times the permissible limit. It can’t be emphasized just how dangerous this is to human health.
Delhi 20th October Air Pollution
— ANI (@ANI) October 20, 2017
Even after the Delhi Pollution Control Board announced that the Diwali pollution levels were not as bad as last year, according to several media reports, this is not true. The AQI reported by the US Embassy is the highest it has been all year, peaking at an AQI of 1,031 (the scale is only supposed to up to 500 as it was never believed to be possible for a city to get any worse than that).
The advice in such cases is stay inside, seal doors and windows the best you can and invest in a heavy duty air purifier.
Mumbai Diwali Air Pollution
— Shivam Vahia (@ShivamVahia) October 19, 2017
No crackers or fireworks were banned in Mumbai this year. However, the population of the city squeezed into such a small area means that all the crackers and fireworks are compressed into a smaller space than in other cities.
Mumbai 17th October Air Pollution
In the days before Diwali, the air pollution wasn’t any different from normal. It was at what the US calls ‘Unhealthy’ which means you shouldn’t be exerting yourself outside for a prolonged period (no runs down Marina Drive).
Mumbai 19th October Air Pollution
On the morning of the 19th, the air quality reduced, reaching hazardous levels – a level at which the US says it affects all people, healthy and otherwise. The only thing to do is to close the doors and windows, seal them as best you can and rely on an air purifier to clean the air you breathe.
Mumbai 20th October Air Pollution
As the Diwali night wore on and more and more crackers were let off, things got really bad for the citizens of Mumbai. Between 11pm on the 19th and 9am on the 20th, the pollution levels were at their highest level of the year. Most Mumbaikars probably woke up with itching eyes, running noses and scratchy throats.
Chennai Diwali Air Pollution
— Chennai Informer (@chennaiinformer) October 20, 2017
Some reports in the media reported Chennai’s air pollution levels to be toxic and hazardous. While this is true, it’s nothing compared to the levels seen by Delhi and Mumbai. For the last few years, Chennai has escaped the poisonous air seen in other cities around Diwali due to the rain. The rain put a dampener on the amount of crackers being let off and also helped clean the air by absorbing and bringing down all the pollutants suspended in the atmosphere.
Chennai 17th October Air Pollution
Chennai celebrates Diwali a day earlier than the North (the legend says it’s because Ram landed in south India first from Sri Lanka and it took him a day to travel to the north). Chennai’s air quality deteriorated throughout the day on the 17th and remained at unhealthy levels throughout the 18th.
Chennai 19th October Air Pollution
On the late evening of the 18th, the air pollution levels reached Hazardous levels (where even the healthy people are affected). At this point, the air quality meter at the Chennai US Consulate in the centre of the city stopped working. The air quality remained at an Unhealthy level for the remainder of the day, which meant that it would affect people who are sensitive to the pollution in the air.
Chennai 20th October Air Pollution
By the morning of the 20th October, the air quality of Chennai had returned to normal levels. It’s reported as being Moderate by the US consulate which means that it’s OK for everyone to be outside and exert themselves except unusually sensitive people.
Other Indian Cities Diwali Air Pollution
Other cities in India didn’t fare any better from the Diwali air pollution from crackers and fireworks.
Kolkata Diwali Air Pollution
Surprisingly, Kolkata’s air pollution didn’t spike to hazardous levels like in other cities in India during Diwali. This is likely due to the rain in the city which washes out any pollutants in the air and also the location of the US Consulate upwind of where the fireworks and crackers were being let off. The difference that rain can make in the pollution levels of a city is huge.
Hyderabad Diwali Air Pollution
Things were going well for Hyderabad up until the evening of the 19th October and then the air quality rapidly got very bad. Between 9pm on the 19th and 4am on the 20th, the air quality was hazardous which meant an air purifier would have provided a welcome relief to anyone suffering from respiratory problems. By mid-morning, the air quality had returned to Unhealthy levels, which is about normal for Hyderabad (but it still makes sense to use an air purifier.
Effects of Air Pollution
Air pollution can affect everyone. For the young or frail, air pollution can be particularly miserable as it affects your respiratory system. Pollutants in the atmosphere reduce your quality of life and even your life expectancy. In China, one study concluded that air pollution is reducing life expectancy by as much as 5.5 years. Given that cities like Delhi and Mumbai see equal or even worse levels of pollution, it could be concluded that life expectancy is cut short by an even greater number of years.
Combating Air Pollution
The easiest way to combat air pollution in Indian cities is to provide an air purifier in each room. Although it’s expensive, it’s the best way to ensure that your family is breathing healthy air at night. You should also consider buying a face mask if you have to be outside during the day. The other solution is to move outside the city, but even smaller towns have toxic levels of air pollution nowadays.