Un-Holi Colours

Holi is fun, flirtatious, and philosophical but the colours used can be toxic

Spring is in the air. On Holi on 6 and 7 March, people shower each other with coloured water and paint faces with pigment. 

Holi is fun, flirtatious, and philosophical: marking the passing of seasons and the material world, and new beginnings. 

In the week leading up to Holi, the Manandhars of Kathmandu have erected a tall chir bamboo pole outside Hanuman Dhoka Palace. From the three circular pagoda-like tiers at the top hang multi-coloured fabric which flows out in the breeze. 

Inspired by the famous episode from Krishna-lila when the young god-child steals clothes from gopini bathing nearby and hangs them up on a tree above, the chir is a symbolic representation of the arrival of spring. 

Unholi colours NT 2

This is a teaser for the revelry at Holi (also called Fagu Purnima) on Monday and Tuesday. Yet, the irony is that this celebration of nature in all its hues is not natural because of the increasing use of synthetic dyes, most of which are toxic. 

Artist Lok Chitrakar recalls that as a child, he and his friends would heat up lalchhap ink into a balloon-like shape and fill it with abir and perfume to throw at each other at Holi.

“Those colours were natural, but today the red powder stains hands for days, like a chemical dye,” says Chitrakar, who uses mostly natural pigment for his elaborate paubha paintings.

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Traditional colours are either plant-based or from naturally occurring minerals. Red came from sandalwood (rakta chandan), pomegranates, or dried rose and hibiscus flowers. Henna, pine needles or spinach leaves were used to make green. Yellow was made from dried turmeric, blue from indigo and beetroot gave purple. 

This is no longer the case. Most natural, organic colours have a shorter shelf-life and may not be as vibrant as synthetic dyes which are imported from India. Chemical powders have a smoother feel, look rich and intense, and are also cheaper to produce. The colours are dissolved in engine oil to turn them into paste.

Colours used in Holi contain many harmful chemicals like lead (Pb), chromium (Cr), cadmium (Cd) and even mercury (Hg), says environmental scientist Ram Charitra Sah at the Centre for Public Health and Environmental Development (CEPHED).

Unholi colours table NT

“Today, dry powdered abir is not organic, researchers have detected nickel, copper, silica, mica granules or ground glass, and asbestos,” Sah explains.

 A 2016 research published in Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology analysed four powders used in Holi and found that more than 40% of the particles had diameters less than 10μm (PM10) linking them to respiratory illnesses.

Research in India, where most of the colour powders found in Nepal come from, have detected a range of toxic chemicals used to make colours used during Holi and other puja rituals. 

The health risk increases when the colours are mixed with oil and other fluids to be applied to the skin, and is especially bad in the case of spray and enamel-based face paints used during Holi. The metallic silver and gold paint that give people an otherworldly look contain excessive amounts of lead and glass.

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“Lead affects people of all ages, but it is especially harmful to children,” cautions Sah. “Just 5μg per 2 decilitres can affect a child’s physical and intellectual development, their growth, sight and hearing.”

The Nepal government in 2015 set the maximum amount of lead allowed in colours and paints at 90 ppm (parts per million). But a 2021 study by CEPHED looked into 62 enamel paints currently sold in Nepal, and found that at least 30 of them contained more than the prescribed amount of lead. 

CEPHED also investigated 21 brands of spray paints in shops in Nepal, and while only seven of them showed more than the prescribed lead content, the rest ranged from 751 to 15,618 ppm.

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Sah says it is urgent for the government to enforce its regulation and raise public awareness — especially at festival time when the colours are profusely used. 

Holi can be celebrated safely and responsibly by not allowing synthetic colours to be used, wearing long sleeves, and masking up. But this just reduces the risk, and does not eliminate it. 

In case of exposure to the eyes, Sah advises rinsing immediately with clean water. Other tips: apply oil to hair and moisturise skin before going out at Holi. Use mild soap to wash off the colours afterwards, but do not use kerosene or petrol.

Enjoy Holi on Monday and Tuesday, but remember that the colourful fun can also be harmful to your health.  

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