Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Air pollution, cigarette smoke, and fire crackers

Firecrackers are far more polluting than cigarettes, and much more harmful than cigarettes and air pollution. However, firecrackers are lit rarely, cigarettes are smoked sometimes, but air pollution is present 24 hours x 7 days a week.

Executive Summary

Firecrackers are far more polluting than cigarettes, and much more harmful than cigarettes and air pollution.

Don’t light firecrackers inside the house, or in closed spaces such as building corridors. Stay away from the firecracker smoke. Keep an eye on young kids lighting crackers, since they don’t understand such safety issues.

However, damage due to all of these is based on how much pollution is faced by our bodies for what duration. There, firecrackers are lit rarely, cigarettes are smoked sometimes, but air pollution is present 24 hours x 7 days a week.

Worldwide, bursting crackers is considered a part of celebrations. Sports victories, annual days, festivals, and weddings involve lighting firecrackers. But, how safe are they?

In India, Diwali, the festival of lights, is the time when most crackers are burst. The two dangers from the firecrackers are loud noises (that can damage hearing), and fires (causing burns, if the crackers are lit incorrectly).

However, a bigger danger from firecrackers is the toxic smoke emitted by them.

New study

In a published paper, Chest Research Foundation, India and Pune University, India jointly tested many common firecrackers for the amount of PM2.5 particles emitted in their smoke.

PM2.5 particles

PM2.5 number is the total weight in a cubic meter of air, of all the particles smaller than 2.5 µm, or micron, in diameter.

In comparison, your hair are 50 micron in thickness, and your red blood cell is 8 micron in diameter. So, the particles smaller than 2.5 micron are really, really small.

These PM2.5 particles prove toxic to the body since they evade our body’s natural defenses. They easily pass through our nasal hair as well as nasal mucus.

Then, they enter our lungs. Deep in the lungs, we have alveoli, or small sacs of air pockets, with blood capillaries wrapped around them. The lining that separates them is only a cell thick, about 1 micron in thickness. Oxygen and carbon dioxide is exchanged at this lining, or interface.

Since PM2.5 particles are very small, they also get transferred from the air into the blood. They enter our bloodstream and reach all parts of the body. As a result, their effects are felt all over the body, leading to their toxicity.

An agency of World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) assigned ‘class I carcinogen’ tag to outdoor air pollution, and its PM2.5 particles. That means, there is ‘sufficient evidence of cancer-causing ability’ in PM2.5 particles.

Salient points

These PM2.5 particulate measurements were done at the typical distance one would stand if one were to light that firecracker. For example, a Flowerpot’s smoke was analysed 6 ft away from it and 3 ft above its level; a Sparkler was, instead, tested just 1 ft away from it.

This smoke was compared to cigarette smoke. A study published in the medical journal Tumori in 2014 measured the change in PM2.5 levels in a typical room (50 m3) when a single cigarette is burned fully. That number was 139 µg/m3.


Note that, this number, 139 µg/m3 is the amount of pollution caused by a full cigarette in a typical room.

But, don’t turn around the argument and say that PM2.5 levels of 139 µg/m3 are equal to (as risky as) smoking one cigarette. They are not. The risk levels are comparable at PM2.5 of about 22 µg/m3. The way to compare air pollution and cigarette smoke is as follows:

Calculate the increase in the risk of death from smoking 1 cigarette every day.

Then, calculate the increase in the risk of death from an average air pollution level throughout the year. This is because air pollution at any single instance does not affect your health as much. It is the cumulative effect of the air pollution over a period of time that matters.

Food and water pollution are instant poisons. They can affect you instantly. If you eat contaminated food or drink water with microbes, you may get typhoid or jaundice fairly quickly.

But, air pollution is like a slow poison. You will not catch a serious respiratory ailment with air pollution, unless you happen to be a hazardous chemicals area or somehow, inhale very concentrated, toxic air.

Thus, a fair way to measure the risk from the air pollution is to see the increase in the risk of death at various annual average levels of PM2.5. That number turns out to be 22 µg/m3.

In other words, smoking one cigarette a day is as risky as (from the angle of mortality, or death) living in a place with annual average PM2.5 levels of 22 µg/m3.

World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) considers an annual average of PM2.5 of 10 µg/m3 as the cut–off for safety. Interestingly, some countries have more lax standards. For example, India considers the PM2.5 safety cut–off to be an annual average of 25 µg/m3.

Many cities in India and China have PM2.5 levels many times of 25 µg/m3. So men, women, and children in many cities in the developing world are breathing air which is equivalent (once again, from the angle of mortality) of smoking many cigarettes a day.

Now, to complicate the matters, the effect of PM2.5 levels on mortality is non–linear. Most of the risk is actually at low levels. Doubling the air pollution may increase the mortality risk by just 20-25%.

That is great for highly polluted cities (4 times pollution might mean the new risk is 150%, and not 400%). And that is not so great for less polluted cities (don’t revel in having better quality air; you are not really safe unless the PM2.5 levels are very low).

For a detailed and rigorous article about this, read on this website: How many cigarettes will you smoke today? It will show, with step by step calculations, that living in an area with annual average PM2.5 levels of 18.6 µg/m3 would lead to the same risk of death (mortality) as with smoking one cigarette a day.

Guess what the PM2.5 level that is safe, as per the global medical data? Forget what W.H.O. says; forget what your country’s norm for air safety say; we are talking about the actual data. It is PM2.5 of 5.8 µg/m3. That is almost the level seen in Oslo and Christchurch. For reference, Melbourne and Vienna are much higher than this value. Check it out.

For live air quality number for your city, click on this link and type the name of your city.

IndiaSpend combined the two studies to find out how many cigarettes equivalent of fine particles the firecracker smoke generated at its peak. Here is the summary:

  • Saap, or a snake tablet: 464 cigarettes
  • Laad, or a garland of 1000 crackers: 277 cigarettes
  • Pulpul, or a large sprinkler:  208 cigarettes
  • Fuljhari, or a regular sparkler: 74 cigarettes
  • Chakri, or a ground spinner: 68 cigarettes
  • Anar, or a flower pot: 34 cigarettes
Bar graph showing smoke from various firecrackers, as compared to cigarette smoke.
Image credit: IndiaSpend calculations based on study published in Tumori, 2014

In my opinion, you should not go into the exact numbers. Just grasp the gist, which is that the firecracker smoke is really bad, even compared to the cigarettes.

The study did not consider chemical gases in the smoke, such as sulphur dioxide or nitrogen dioxide. That would be an additional source of hazard with the firecracker smoke.

Here is my YouTube video that summarises many of the above points:

Some firecrackers, such as a rocket, cause a lot of smoke pollution. But, since that firecracker moves skywards once lit, it doesn’t affect the person lighting it much.

In conclusion

Don’t light firecrackers inside the house, or in closed spaces such as building corridors.

Stay away from the firecracker smoke.

Keep an eye on young kids who don’t understand this safety issue.

Remember that firecrackers are lit rarely, cigarettes occasionally, and air pollution is there all 24 hours of 365 days.

Also, kids as well as adults light firecrackers, only adults light cigarettes, and air pollution is there for all living beings.

First published on: 26th October, 2018

Image credit: Luke Barkhuizen from Pexels


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