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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 11:28 EDT

Hindu Festivals Bring Pollution To India’s Waterways

August 18, 2008

As Hindus across India celebrate religious festivals in September and October, many are concerned about the impact of toxic chemicals that are washing off of thousands of idols immersed in rivers and lakes.

The pollution is killing fish and contaminating crops, said experts and environmentalists on Monday.

The decorated statues are worshipped before they are taken to the rivers, laves and the sea, where they are immersed in accordance with Hindu faith.

But environmentalists have raised questions about the non-biodegradable materials contained in the idols such as plastic, cement, plaster of Paris and toxic dyes. Paints contain metals like mercury, cadmium and lead, which can pass up the food chain from fish to human beings.

After the statues are immersed, the toxins then contaminate food crops when villagers use the polluted water for irrigation, said Shyam Asolekar, science and engineering head at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai.

“Even small traces are extremely toxic as they persist in the body for a long time and accumulate in the human tissues,” said Asolekar, who has closely studied the effects of Hindu customs.

Plaster of Paris, for example does not dissolve easily and it also reduces the oxygen level in the water, said environmentalists.

Statue remains from festivities last year still float in rivers and water tanks in Mumbai, where the annual “Ganesh Chaturthi” festival culminate in the immersion of some 160,000 statutes — some up to 25 feet high — by millions of devotees.

Traditionally, idols were made from mud and clay and vegetable-based dyes were used to paint them.

But commercialization of festivals such as Ganesh Chaturthi and Durga Puja has meant people want bigger and brighter idols and are no longer happy with the eco-friendly statues.

“If we do not respect nature then we are not respecting god,” said Manisha Gutman of environmental group Eco Exist.

About 80 percent of India’s 1.1 billion population are Hindus. In recent years, their religious festivals and customs have come under increasing scrutiny as public awareness of environmental issues grows.

The spring festival of Holi involves the throwing of colored powder but studies have found that the industrial powders used are often toxic and can cause asthma, temporary blindness and even skin cancer.

Image Caption: An idol maker gives finishing touches to a Ganesha statue during the Chaturthi festival. Courtesy Wikipedia

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