Toxic Tihar

Risks this festival season: lead in spices, dyes in tika, poor air quality

ON FIRE: Smoke mainly from stubble fires in India and Pakistan blowing across the Gangetic Plains up the valleys to the mountains, including to Kathmandu in this NASA FIRMS satellite image taken on Wednesday morning. Each red dot is a fire source detected by infrared sensors in space.

Spices used to sharpen food taste also have medicinal properties, and none more so than turmeric. But researchers have found turmeric mixed with lead chromate to enhance its golden colour.

Such turmeric contained lead levels up to 500 times the legal limit of 2.5 micrograms per gram in Bangladesh. Lead was also detected in turmeric in India. And if it is in India, Nepal may not be far behind.

“We import turmeric from India and Bangladesh, so there is no doubt we are also being exposed to harmful levels of lead,” says Ram Charitra Sah at the Centre for Public Health and Environmental Development (CEPHED) which campaigns against lead in paints, cosmetics and toys. “Nepal must urgently conduct research of its own and introduce regulations.”

Lead poisoning contributes to over 5.5 million premature deaths a year globally. There is also a strong correlation between elevated Blood Lead Level (BLL) and decreased IQ in children.

Nearly 65% of children aged 6 months-3 years in Kathmandu had BLL above the danger mark of 5µg/dl (micrograms per decilitre). Children aged between 10-15 in Birganj fared worse: 84% had BLL more than 10µg/dl.

Read also: Un-Holi Colours, Ashish Dhakal

In 2015, Nepal enacted a mandatory Lead Paint Standard of 90 ppm to eliminate lead-based paint from Nepal. A CEPHED study in 2021 found that only 52% of the paints sampled were compliant, although major paint brands that makeup 80% of the market are complying with the standard.

Nepal also implemented toxic chemical standards for toys, including lead, only to be overturned in a year because of lobbying by powerful companies.

CEPHED is now lobbying to include lead chromate in Annex 3 of the Rotterdam Convention that Nepal is a party to. If listed, traders importing the inorganic compound would have to provide details of purchase and purpose.

Synthetic dyes and vermillion powder used in festival rituals,
especially upcoming Tihar, contain not just lead but also mercury,
cadmium, copper, silica, mica granules or ground glass, and asbestos. 

Read also: Taking the lead on lead, Sonia Awale

These can cause a wide range of health problems, even lead to blindness, hearing loss, cancer, paralysis, dermatitis, renal failure, asthma, stomach cramps, nervous system disorders and intellectual disability, among others.

“Nepal needs to make mandatory standards and implement them through regulatory agencies,” Sah says. “Equally important is consumer awareness, continued research and laboratory facilities.”

Tihar next week also coincides with the stubble burning season in the Subcontinent. Every year, smoke from agricultural residue burning in north India and Pakistan engulfs Delhi and other north Indian cities. Prevailing winds blow the particles up to Nepal.

The Tarai has been affected for the past week, and the smoke was also blown up to Kathmandu Valley, although it cleared somewhat on Wednesday.

A NASA FIRMS satellite image this week showed a dramatic decline in the number of fires in Haryana and Punjab which coincided with the Indian Supreme Court directing Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi to take immediate steps to stop stubble burning. Haryana in particular has been pursuing an incentive-driven zero-stubble burning policy.

Read also: Epicentre of pollution, Sonia Awale

“There are far fewer fires in Pakistani Punjab where I visited in September, and that is because the government of the province has taken a much harsher approach to punishing farmers who are caught burning their fields,” says atmospheric scientist Arnico Panday who is a member of the Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP).

He adds: “Both Pakistan and India have introduced newer measures to reduce air pollution, so I am optimistic that their emissions during critical times will be lower this year, and the impact on us will also  be less.

But there is still Nepal’s own air pollution from vehicle emissions, garbage burning, brick kilns and industries. As winter sets in, the pollutants are trapped at surface level due to inversion,
concentrating the pollutants.

In cities like Delhi and Lahore, peak pollution times occur when large numbers of farmers burn straw and stubble on the fields, explains Panday.

Read also: Solution to pollution, Pallavi Pant and Anobha Gurung

This trend has increased since the introduction of combined harvester machines that leave more straw behind in the fields.This is now becoming common also in the Nepal Tarai.

More than the pollution peaks in winter, it is the annual average pollution and hence continuous exposure that leads to a range of
long-term health impacts including heart attacks, strokes and lung

Says Arnico Panday: “Reducing the annual average pollution levels requires addressing the year-round sources such as factories, vehicles, and cooking fires. This happens through a commitment to invest in clean energy solutions and imposing more stringent emissions standards on vehicles and industries.”

Firecrackers during Tihar will also add to the problem and further decline the air quality as it did last year in India and parts of Nepal. To prevent fires and health hazards, the government has already issued a ban on the import, sale and use of fireworks and explosives during Tihar which starts on Friday. But the proof of the pudding is in the implementation.

Read also: Why is the air in Bhaktapur so bad?, Sushila Budathoki

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.