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.

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First Published on: October 27, 2016 2:15 am
  1. A
    Arun Sharma
    Oct 27, 2016 at 5:29 am
    Do we need to burst firecrackers on Dewali night? This practice should be discouraged through the country despite its affect on employment on cracker manufacturers.
    1. D
      Dashrath Prasad Singh
      Oct 27, 2016 at 4:44 am
      Good artocle
      1. H
        hameed mohamed
        Oct 27, 2016 at 3:07 am
        do the consution allow a religion to pollute the air with toxic and risk fire and explosions injuries lung damages to young kids to suffer all hus life and giving extreme hard time to asthma people for weeks where is the law makers and supreme Court as tgere is proof that Hindu mst use firecrackers in devali
        1. M
          Mallikarjun Iyyer
          Oct 27, 2016 at 7:15 pm
          applaud your getting reason to the ban and also the lack of compliance. is it not a governance issue? Understandably one can point out how one of the most silent deaths our citizens are facing and also the issue should be discussed in international fora and due penalities levied for these kind misdemeanours. Will we do it? than the press
          1. M
            Mallikarjun Iyyer
            Oct 27, 2016 at 7:17 pm
            i also want the press to keep a watch on the fire crackers being used in political tamshas on billo's birthday and dillu's ascendency. and report in the wider press
            1. M
              Oct 27, 2016 at 5:04 am
              ALL Hindustani always try to buy sivakasi firecrackers to protect Indians life.
              1. R
                Oct 28, 2016 at 10:47 am
                In my opinion my country on right track all indians are against chinese products from crackers to all electonic goods lets start what we all indians were waiting for the slogan given by our prime minister make in india and export from india through out the world.
                1. R
                  Oct 27, 2016 at 6:19 am
                  All kinds of pollution in residential areas should not only be banned, but also strictly enforced. Fireworks, loud music during festivals and marriages, mosques blaring one after the other from 4AM onwards. .
                  1. R
                    Oct 27, 2016 at 6:08 am
                    Slaughtering thousands and thousand of sheep and goats also cause immense pollution and wastage of water.
                    1. S
                      Oct 27, 2016 at 10:30 am
                      Observe a meatless Bakrid this year. Acceptable ??? Slaughter of crores of Goats results in Pollution by way of blood and gore. Bursting crackers for 2 nights in a year will not cause all the rubbish that you are spouting so stop talking rubbish and answer my question on meatless Bakrid
                      1. R
                        Oct 27, 2016 at 10:42 am
                        The most important reason for not using Chinese fire crackers is..chinese fire crackers are specially made with harmful chemicals to harm Indians. There is no lower limit Chinese can go down to..
                        1. R
                          Oct 27, 2016 at 10:46 am
                          kindly add noise pollution due to blaring of namaj at 5 am/5Pm every day, blood and gore during bakareed...will you?
                          1. R
                            Oct 27, 2016 at 10:44 am
                            what are your thought about Environment friendly Bakrid? and decreasing non vegetarianism in general. This is one of the far most cause for production of green house gases.
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