Chinese firecrackers and why they are problematic

They are cheap and bright, but are very often dangerous. Many Chinese-made firecrackers use the highly unstable chemical potassium chlorate — which is the main reason they are banned in India.

Written by Mallica Joshi | Updated: October 27, 2016 8:55 pm
firecrackers, chinese fire crackers, air pollution, india, festival crackers, diwali, latest news, indian express, india news The Delhi government has formed special teams to ensure Chinese firecrackers are not sold this Diwali. (Express Photo: Praveen Khanna/Archive)

Three days before Diwali, the heat is on Chinese fireworks. The Delhi government has put together 11 special teams to enforce the ban on these firecrackers — raiding shops and confiscating them. This, even as calls for the boycott of Chinese firecrackers — fuelled by Beijing’s continued support of Pakistan, its refusal to allow the UN sanctioning of terrorist Masood Azhar, and its blocking of India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group — have grown steadily louder.

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So, why exactly are Chinese fireworks banned in India?

Low-cost Chinese fireworks that find their way into India contain potassium chlorate, which is highly unstable and can explode with just a sharp jolt. Chemicals in Chinese firecrackers are also toxic, causing skin diseases and triggering allergies. Indian fireworks, by contrast, use potassium and sodium nitrates, which are more inert and, therefore, safer. Fireworks containing potassium chlorate or perchlorate will burn brighter and last longer, but will be more unstable. This is the main reason behind the ban.

But is the problem with the crackers or the chemical?

Use of potassium chlorate in fireworks has been banned in India since 1992. According to a central government notification, the use of the chemical is only permitted in small quantities in specific circumstances — scientific purposes, manufacturing heads of matches, for use in paper caps for toy pistols, and in percussion caps for use in railway fog signals.

The Ministry of Commerce and Industry in September 2014 said, “Possession and sale of fireworks of foreign origin in India is illegal and punishable under the Law… Various Fireworks Associations have informed that these smuggled items include the chemical ‘Potassium Chlorate’ which is a dangerous and hazardous chemical and can ignite or explode spontaneously.”

Concern over the safety of Chinese fireworks were first raised in 2013 and, the following year, they were banned. The ban was, in fact, on all foreign-made fireworks, but it affected Chinese fireworks the most — China is the world’s largest manufacturer of fireworks, makes a wide range of these products, and was the source of most low-cost fireworks coming into India.

Okay, so what makes Chinese fireworks so popular?

The cost of potassium chlorate is a third that of potassium or sodium nitrate. It produces oxygen on being heated, creating a bigger fire and increasing the temperature of the firework. The powdered metals in the cracker — added for colour — produce brighter colours with more heat. In the end, because they are both cheaper and burn brighter, they give customers literally a bigger bang for their buck.

Many Chinese as well as Indian fireworks do not mention chemical compositions and noise levels, which is mandatory under the Explosive Rules, 2008. The noise ceiling for firecrackers is 145 decibels.

And what about their effects on the body and environment?

Since illegally imported Chinese crackers often have higher sulphur and potassium chlorate content, the levels of pollution they create are also higher. The high sulphur content produces toxic oxides of sulphur, which cause eye irritation and respiratory distress. Handling potassium chlorate irritates the skin and causes breathing trouble. Prolonged exposure can lead to bronchitis, and affect the kidneys and the nervous system.

That said, not all Chinese firecrackers are equally dangerous. Different manufacturers use different compositions. “China is a huge manufacturing market and there are several big manufacturers that make good quality products. What comes to India has to do with the cost. Since the crackers containing potassium chlorate are cheap, they are smuggled here. There needs to be a clear policy for importing fireworks so that it can be regulated. Names of companies that are producing permissible crackers should be made public,” said Vivek Chattopadhyay, member of the Air Pollution Control unit at public interest research and advocacy body Centre for Science and Environment.

But are Indian firecrackers in general less polluting?

Not necessarily. Research by independent bodies has revealed that some manufacturers in India too use banned chemicals. Investigators of the Kollam temple fire in April had, in fact, said the fire had become unmanageable due to the use of potassium chlorate in the fireworks.

“Our secondary research indicates that in many cases, firecrackers have higher sulphur content than stipulated. There is extensive evidence to show that guidelines for labelling and sale are also not being followed. Irrespective of whether the fireworks are of Chinese origin or Indian, their very nature as explosives makes them polluting. Violation of standards have been seen last year in both Indian-made and Chinese-made firecrackers,” said Polash Mukerjee, research associate at CSE’s Clean Air and Sustainable Mobility unit.

Mukerjee says emission standards for fireworks in Chinese cities are, in fact, higher than those in India.

How much China-made fireworks is smuggled into India each year?

There is no clear figure, but some reports say fireworks worth Rs 1,500 crore are smuggled into India each year. Crackers worth Rs 9 crore were seized from the inland depot in Tughlakabad earlier this month.