The festival of lights quickly turned into a celebration of smog, especially in the National Capital Region, which once again made headlines for its poor air quality. Delhi, accorded the dubious distinction of the city with the worst air and called a “gas chamber” by the Supreme Court last year, was covered in smoke and fog. According to Central Pollution Control Board, most areas in Delhi recorded PM2.5 levels of up to 1000. Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 and PM 2.10 comes from activity that involves burning of materials or any dust-generating activity. Both variants of particulate matter affect the respiratory tract and lungs because they are easily inhalable. Here’s a comparison of international standards for PM 2.5 and why this Diwali was bad news for our health and environment.

Delhi’s PM2.5 was 16 times higher than the Government of India prescribed safe limit of 60 (24-hour mean average) mg/m3 (microgram per cubic metre). It was over 40 times higher than the WHO safe limit, which is 25 mg/m3. The European standard for PM2.5 is 25 mg/m3 , and the US standards are 35 mg/m3.

(The Indian PM2.5 limit is 2.4 times more than WHO standards. Delhi on Diwali: 40 times more than WHO standards, and 16 times more than Indian standards. )

The AQI (Air Quality Index) for other cities was a cause for alarm as well.

PM2.5 can enter the bloodstream and the respiratory tract damaging lung tissues. Both short and long term exposure to PM can cause adverse health effects, aggravate respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Crackers and cigarettes

A recent study by the Pune-based Chest Research Foundation and Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences of the University of Pune has revealed that “diwali fire crackers produce extremely high levels of PM2.5 over a short period of time, with the snake tablet producing peak level of 64,850 mcg/m3.” The study assessed the amount of particulate matter released by six popular firecrackers — sparklers (fuljhadi), ground spinners (chakra), flower pots, pulpuls, garland of 1,000 sounding crackers (laad) and snake tablets — when burnt outdoors in the evening.

“The aim of the study was to understand how much PM is released by the crackers and inhaled by the child when bursting the cracker. The PM in the breathing zone just after bursting the cracker is much higher than what is recorded by environment monitors, which is far less as it takes a cumulative figure and much of the PM may have dissolved already,” said Sneha Limaye of the Chest Research Foundation.

She explained that the study measured PM three feet away from the cracker, which is the average distance between a lit firework and the person bursting it. The peak PM was recorded to give an idea of what damage various crackers could do.

(The chart shows peak levels of PM2.5 produced when each of the crackers is burst. Change the tab to know the duration for which each firework lasts and its effect.)

The worst of the lot is the innocuous-looking snake tablet which burnt 64,850 mcg/m3. "Children, in particular, burn the fulzhadi, the pulpul and the snake tablet barely a foot or two away from them and in doing so inhale a large number of smoke particles that reach deeper into their lung," Limaye said. reported that this is equivalent to the smoke produced from burning 464 cigarettes in a room. As per their calculations, here’s how many cigarettes each of these crackers are equal to.