When in Rome…

The combination of a desire to appear progressive and “westernized” while still holding many outdated and outmoded cultural and traditional attitude and also following such practices, coupled with a lack of some basic science literacy, has resulted in Nepalis adopting many foreign practices without questioning much.

One such import has had a twist of their own added to it making it outright dangerous. That practice is no other than birthday celebrations with a cake. They have replaced wax candles with Roman candles AND they also use foam sprays even in the presence of a naked flame. I haven’t been able to determine/decide whether this is a native Nepali perversion or if it’s an import from India or another neighboring country.

The first time I realized that’s what Nepalis were doing was within my own home when I received a photo of my little nephew’s birthday celebrations — it included a cake with the roman candles stuck on top! Of course, I put a complete stop to it right after I saw the photo!

And then, I started noticing how ubiquitous the practice was! Here are three examples!

For more about Roman candles, read What’s inside a Roman candle? If you follow the link and read it, you’ll learn that one of the things a Roman candle consists of is gunpowder (which contains sulfur, carbon and potassium nitrate), something I have had my students in the past study and prepare on a number of occasions in a secondary school lab. (Click here for a video of my students setting off the mixture in a controlled environment.) You’ll also notice that they consist of metal compounds, and the two that the article mentions are strontium and barium, both of which are toxic. This WHO document describes the toxicity of barium compounds and this write-up that of strontium.

The metal compound used can vary from one Roman candle to another, but pretty much every Roman candle owes its colorful display to metal compounds, generally a toxic metal compound. (Incidentally, the color of the powders we use during holi celebrations, for example, are mostly also from toxic metal compounds!)

As for the use of foam sprays, of course, if you remember even just your secondary school chemistry, you know how dangerous its use in a room with a naked flame can be! The incredibly high surface area to volume ratio of very tiny chemical globules that come out of spray cans means that they are incredibly highly flammable! Again, that’s basic chemistry! But given how our secondary school education teaches children to mostly memorize facts and figures, who would remember the factors which affect rates of reaction?!

I wouldn’t be surprised if there have been accidents in the homes of Nepalis though I have yet to hear of it or see evidence of it. However, I have seen videos of such accidents in other countries. Just doing a search on youTube for “foam spray birthday party accidents” yielded 10,200 hits!

Here’s a short video compilation of few of those accidents.

If you are a parent and have been celebrating your child’s birthday using Roman candles and foam spray, please stop doing so and also tell others to stop as well!

What could potentially happen is NOT worth their use! With Roman candles, if you didn’t watch the video, you are introducing your children, other participants and yourself to high concentrations of toxic chemicals, some potentially carcinogenic. With the foam spray, what is supposed to be a celebration could end up in tears or much much worse!

I also wish that we as a people weren’t so quick to adopt “Western” practices so readily and without any questioning. I wish!



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