Commercial Holi festivals have been held in Europe since 2012 and are particular popular among teenagers and young adults. In 2015 more than 100 events were held in Germany and in 2014 more than 250,000 people had visited these events. Loud techno music and dancing are part of the event in addition to the throwing of coloured powders especially at hourly countdowns.
For the UBA the several tons of coloured powders (holi colours, micro confetti, gulal powder) used at each festival are of particular interest. They consist to a great extent of fine dust which is released into the air and not only deposited on skin and clothing but also inhaled.
Holi colours are distributed by various manufactures and declared differently (e.g. “conforms to the EU cosmetic regulations” or “made in Germany according to strict quality standards”). However, up to now a uniform legal classification which could be the basis for a risk assessment of the coloured powders is missing. In addition, the producers and festival organizers do not always declare all ingredients.
The main component of the holi colours is the carrier substance (i.e rice, corn starch or talcum) to which the colour pigments adhere to. According to the manufactures only natural food colouring is used. Other ingredients like flow aids or preservatives are authorized foodstuffs or food additives.
The negative health effects of the inhalation of holi powders or of skin and mucous membrane contact have so far not been sufficiently investigated. As a precautionary measure some organizers advise visitors not to wear contact lenses, but to wear protective goggles and try to keep eyes and mouth closed when throwing the powder. Similar recommendations have also been issued by the German Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL).
Analyses by UBA show that holi powders contain up to 70% of fine dust (particles with a maximum diameter of 10 μm), a fact that is often overlooked when assessing holi colours solely as a cosmetic product. Such small particles can be inhaled and – depending on their size - penetrate into the lung tissue. Further results suggest that ingredients in some of the powders have inflammatory properties.
Reports from India describe that allergic and other hypersensitivity reactions do occur during holi events. Event medical services in Germany reported about cases of breathing problems and mucous membrane irritations such as coughing and red eyes, together with sticky eyes and nasal passages that had needed treatment.
Because of these reports, in 2015 UBA conducted an exploratory web-based survey on health effects and knowledge of precautionary methods. The cough (50%) was found to be the most frequently reported health effect during festivals followed by nose and throat irritations. We found “eye irritations” (moderate/severe) to be the most pronounced health effect. 32% of the subjects reported having had at least one of the queried complaints. Only about 40% had noticed any safety recommendations. 53% of the subjects knew that holi colours could cause problems for contact lens wearers and 67% knew that people with asthma or allergies should refrain from using holi colours altogether.
Our recommendations are to follow the health and safety advice given by the event organizers which can be found on the relevant web sites, the tickets or on the powder packaging. It is advisable for people with known allergies or relevant illnesses such as asthma not to attend these events.Due to the colour dust explosion in Taipei/Taiwan in June 2015, we would like to point out that the organizers and licensing authorities must ensure that only “explosion-proof”, inspected holi colours are used. For further information, please contact the Association for the Promotion of German Fire Protection (vfdb).