The season of consecutive festivals is upon us - it started off with Janmashtami and now it is Ganesh Chaturthi and then come the Pooja Holidays and then Dusheera and Diwali. Ganesh Chaturthi is a festival celebrated all over India with great pomp and pagentry. The birthdate of the elephant God, the destroyer of obstacles and the bringer of good fortune is an important festival in the Hindu calendar. In some parts of the country, this involves preparing huge idols of the God - previously this used to be made of unfired earthern clay and painted with natural dyes. These days, the idols are made with plaster of Paris (PoP) and painted with synthetic paint. Traditionally, after the celebrations these idols are immersed into rivers and lakes.
This year, this governments of Goa and Nagpur have taken a pro-active steps to ban PoP idols from entering the State. Some variations of plaster that contain powdered silica or asbestos may present health hazards if inhaled. Asbestos is a known carcinogen when inhaled in powder form, especially in people who smoke, and inhalation can also cause asbestosis. Inhaled silica can cause silicosis and (in very rare cases) can encourage the development of cancer.
Special cleanup methods should be used with of plaster products, as they can interfere with the flow of plumbing systems downstream of the disposal area. The residue of these products will often solidify underwater and plug up drains, stain gutters and sidewalks and spoil planting areas. Apart from the hazards of PoP, the synthetic paints that are used to paint the idol contain mercury and cadium among other heavy metals and dyes. Not only are these harmful to human health but they also affect marine life.
Mercury is also known to bio-accumulate and bio-magnify up the food chain which means it is stored in the tissues of animals. When mercury is present in water supplies, it can affect marine life and fish which is in turn consumed by humans. Whatever ends up in the rivers and lakes also eventually end up in the oceans affecting other marine life as well.
Celebrating festivals in a responsible manner is in itself a spiritual exercise. If you must purchase idols, then look for the clay ones which do not affect water supplies as much and have the ability to biodegrade in the water.