In 2021, India’s capital city New Delhi recorded its worst post-Diwali day air quality index (AQI) — 462, the highest in the past five years. For context, an AQI of 50–100 is considered satisfactory, while that under 50 is regarded as good. The residents of Delhi, which is currently one of the most polluted megacities in the world, as well as those of other cities in India, fall victim to the perils of cracker pollution every Diwali.
With Diwali season around the corner yet again, pulmonologists detail the ill effects of inhaling Diwali cracker fumes and restate the importance of protecting your lungs from the harmful smoke. Dr Randeep Guleria, chairman, institute of internal medicine and respiratory and sleep medicine and director, medical education, Medanta, Gurugram and former director & CEO, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, says that when it comes to the pollution caused by bursting crackers, there are two main components which can cause harm. He elaborates, “One is the smoke that these crackers emit and the other, the chemicals or elements added to sparklers to boost color and brightness.”
Cracker smoke and its impact on your lungs
Dr Davinder Kundra, consultant pulmonologist, Manipal Hospitals, Dwarka, Delhi, says that the bursting of crackers pollutes the air with particulate matter and harmful chemicals besides causing noise pollution. “The pollution caused by bursting crackers leads to a spike in particulate matter referred to as PM2.5,” he explains. Cracker smoke contains several harmful chemicals, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and lead. “As these particles are tiny, they can reach even the smaller airways and enter the bloodstream. And through the blood, they get carried to other organs and can cause extensive damage,” he shares.
Viral infections also spike during Diwali due to the air pollution caused by crackers. Some may also experience skin irritation — a burning sensation on the skin — as a result of the fumes. Dr Kundra explains, “Cadmium is one of the harmful chemicals present in cracker fumes. It reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood and may lead to anemia upon long-term exposure.”
The pollutants can cause a host of other illnesses, too. Dr Kundra shares, “Zinc and magnesium are two of the metals present in cracker fumes. Being exposed to this smoke can lead to a condition known as metal fume fever (a pulmonary inflammation that causes flu-like symptoms, which is commonly seen among welders).”
Inhaling cracker smoke: What it does to your lungs
There are two main impacts of inhaling the smoke emitted by bursting crackers. “When you directly inhale the smoke released by bursting or burning firecrackers, it can cause acute congestion,” informs Dr Guleria. “When people with underlying respiratory illnesses — asthma, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or chronic heart diseases — inhale this smoke, it worsens their symptoms.”
Dr Kundra adds that people with allergic rhinitis may also experience an exacerbation of symptoms, including runny or stuffy nose, nasal congestion, itchy and watery eyes, sore throat and throat irritation. “Over time, some can have issues in the airways and lungs. The pollution may result in obstructed airways in those with allergic rhinitis, which leads to shortness of breath and tightness and heaviness in the chest. Some may observe a wheezing sound in the chest or chest pain, too,” he shares.
Further, in people with lung fibrosis, the oxygen requirement goes up when the AQI is poor. “Lower air quality leads to reduced local immunity of lungs, causing increased infections in the respiratory tract,” he says.
As per a study published in 2019, short-term personal exposures to PM2.5 during the burning of firecrackers such as sparklers, flower pots and snake tablets can have significant short- and long-term health effects, especially among children, elderly people and those with underlying chronic lung or cardiovascular diseases. “This harmful smoke can also lead to cardiovascular diseases such as strokes over time. Long-term exposure to polluted air can lead to lung cancer as well,” says Dr Kundra.
Who is at high risk?
Some groups of people are at higher risk of developing issues due to cracker smoke. This includes older adults, pregnant women, immunocompromised individuals, people with chronic conditions such as chronic kidney disease (CKD) and chronic lung diseases. Dr Kundra adds, “In pregnant women, poor air quality index has been proven to be linked to premature, low birth weight babies.”
How to protect yourself from cracker smoke
The best way to protect yourself during the upcoming Diwali season is to personally commit to having a cracker-free Diwali. Dr Guleria also advises that people, especially those with chronic respiratory and heart conditions, should try and stay indoors as much as possible even a day before and after Diwali.
Dr Guleria adds that people with underlying chronic conditions may need an alteration in their medication to avoid experiencing an acute worsening of symptoms that could cause them to end up in emergency wards of hospitals. Instead, he suggests that if someone notices any breathing difficulties or worrying symptoms, they should reach out to a doctor immediately.
Further, to keep your homes pollution-free, Dr Kundra recommends, “Try to keep your rooms well-ventilated. However, avoid opening your windows during peak pollution hours. You can also use air purifiers indoors to improve the air quality.”
Dr Kundra adds that people with underlying respiratory illnesses should take their medication and be careful to have their inhalers on them, especially during the Diwali season.
From nasal congestion and irritation to long-term problems of the respiratory tract, the pollution caused by crackers can lead to a range of complications. Those with pre-existing lung conditions should be extra careful during this time as their symptoms can get exacerbated, say doctors. Medical professionals recommend a cracker-free Diwali and staying indoors among other measures to protect your lungs.