Diwali Air Pollution: Tips To Reduce Asthma And Respiratory Problems In Children

Fumes from Diwali fireworks can trigger asthma in children. Here's what Dr Praveen Valsalan says about pollution caused by bursting crackers and how to prevent breathing problems during Diwali.

By Dr Praveen Valsalan

Diwali Air Pollution: Tips To Reduce Asthma And Respiratory Problems In Children

The festive season is all about having fun and making memories with your family. Everyone, from the youngest to the oldest in the family, eagerly waits for Diwali, the festival of lights, to arrive. Besides, if there is a little one in the family who would be celebrating his first Diwali or a child who can be a part of the celebration, then the festivities become even more special.

But, like Diwali, the buzz around the pollution caused by bursting crackers during the festival has also become a routine affair. The smoke from crackers not only raises pollution levels but also laces the air with deadly cancer-causing substances. The noxious smoke triggers many respiratory problems such as asthma in children. And, the sad fact is that, although there is awareness among people about the adverse health consequences of bursting crackers, they still indulge in it.

What triggers respiratory problems during Diwali

In India, we burn more than 40 recognised and other dangerous forms of firecrackers, which release toxic fumes into the dense winter air. The situation worsens when fumes from crackers combine with vehicular pollution and smoke from burning garbage in the open.

The calm and cool winter weather prevents the dispersal of smoke and pollutants, leading to stubborn, toxic smog. So, for 2-3 days post Diwali, there is a chance of increase in breathing problems and other health issues, mostly in children.

In India, according to the State of Global Air 2018 report, pollution kills 1.1 million people. The report links air pollutants to 10.6 per cent of all deaths in the country. Inhaling polluted air is the foremost trigger of asthma, which is also the most common non-communicable condition among children across the globe.

A landmark new study published in The Lancet Planetary Health in April 2019 adds to growing evidence of the terrible effect of traffic air pollution on young children. The research found that 4 million new cases of paediatric asthma occur every year because of exposure to fine particles and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from traffic fumes. The threat is global. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 90 per cent (1.8 billion) children in the world are exposed to toxic air pollutants on a daily basis.

Who are at a higher risk of respiratory issues

Patients suffering from breathing problems like asthma or bronchitis are at a higher risk from pollution. Apart from those with asthma or lung infections, experts have noted that children and senior citizens are at increased risk of developing breathing-related problems owing to rise in pollution during Diwali.

Children have a poor defence mechanism, so they are most vulnerable to cracker pollution. Their ability to metabolise and detoxify environmental agents is different. Considering their higher level of physical activity, they inhale more volume of air than adults and therefore breathe in more pollutants. Equally vulnerable are the elderly, infants and the ailing.

Deadly chemicals in crackers

Before enjoying sparklers and glitters with children, we should understand the chemical footprint of crackers. Deadly chemicals like carbon and sulphur are required to burn the crackers which produces many toxic gases. Moreover, a number of chemicals are added to act as stabiliser, oxidiser and binder. Think of all the attractive colours and sparkles that mesmerise you. These colours have a chemical name—strontium for red, barium for green, copper for blue, iron for gold, and copper and strontium for purple.

What do they do to us?

For glitters, antimony sulphide is used. This can cause lung cancer and skin conditions. Barium nitrate used for green colour can cause respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, and muscle weakness. Copper compounds for blue can give rise to cancer, skin conditions and hormonal imbalances. Perchlorate is responsible for lung cancer and thyroid complications. Lead and chloride are detrimental to physical and mental growth of infants and the unborn child. Most of the toxins accumulate in the body over time and, in the long run, lead to cancer.

How to prevent asthma in children during Diwali

Diwali is the time to celebrate, but asthma patients must exercise caution. Following are some basic precautions that should be taken to control the symptoms of asthma in children and signs of other respiratory problems in them:

  • Stay indoors. Avoid going out and bursting crackers or being around them.
  • If you see any acute and severe symptoms like cough, wheezing, or breathlessness in spite of taking medication, immediately report at the nearest medical care centre for appropriate advice and treatment.
  • Asthma patients should take preventive medicine. Patients with severe asthma should keep their inhaler pump handy.
  • If going out with a child, carry a handkerchief, a piece of cloth or medical masks to cover her mouth. This will protect her from dust allergies and pollution.
  • Moisturise nostrils. This helps in restricting the entry of fine particulate matter through the nose.
  • Eat different types of salad and semi-cooked vegetables. Breakfast should consist of mainly seasonal fruits. Restrict the consumption of highly polished rice, maida (refined wheat flour), potatoes and curd or yoghurt.
  • Those who suffer from respiratory issues and have breathing problems must avoid going to highly polluted areas or being exposed to sudden temperature changes.
  • Plan for a vacation to a place where the level of oxygen is higher and pollution level is lower.
  • Air inside closed spaces is more polluted than the air outside. It’s advisable to install air purifiers at home to allow the movement of air.

Certain rights and duties are attached to celebrations. We must follow these at all times, not only for the betterment of the society, but also for our own well-being. Taking these steps can phase out the problem caused by bursting crackers.

  • Limit licenses and areas of sale to control sale volume.
  • Enforce time restriction already in place and discourage fireworks in sensitive areas; there shall be a complete ban on bursting sound-emitting firecrackers between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
  • Regulate the composition of crackers to eliminate hazardous chemicals and metals; rigorous review and regulation of the chemicals and metals used to manufacture crackers. For instance, eliminating heavy metals and low sulphur.
  • Enforce proper labelling with statutory warning; labelling and packaging of all fireworks in India should be made mandatory and must include the chemical composition, categorisation and the expected effects on environment. Violation should lead to cancellation of license.
  • Impose pollution cess on crackers; both manufacturers as well as the users should be made liable for the health and environmental damage from fireworks. This will be an effective demand management tool.
  • Come up with a winter firework policy to link cracker burning with air pollution levels; crackers are burst not only during Diwali but also during social events throughout the year, especially during winter. There is a need for a policy to not permit firecrackers during the four winter months.

It is important to bear in mind the adverse effects of air pollution and stop burning dangerous and highly polluting crackers. Instead, green crackers can be used. In October 2018, the Supreme Court permitted bursting of low-emission crackers, relaxing the 'complete ban' issued in 2017. The 'green' crackers were researched and developed by scientists at CSIR-NEERI as per the court's directions.

These crackers are less harmful compared to conventional firecrackers and do not contain any toxic chemicals such as lithium, arsenic, barium and lead. They are called Safe Water Releaser (SWAS), Safe Thermite Cracker (STAR) and Safe Minimal Aluminium (SAFAL) crackers. The absence of harmful chemicals means less pollution and a cleaner environment. Green crackers release water vapour and don't allow the dust particles to rise. Using green crackers leads to a reduction of 30–35 per cent in particulate matters and harmful gases.

Diwali is just a few days away and we are all looking forward to it. This year, let us take a pledge to not burn crackers and opt for a green, pollution-free and healthy Diwali.

About the expert:

Written by Dr Praveen Valsalan on 24 October 2019

Dr Praveen Valsalan is a Consultant Pulmonologist at Aster Medcity, Kochi

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