Fireworks – not really ‘cheap’ thrills for the environment

Chemical ingredients of fireworks are chosen to produce specific colors. But there is a lot more to be aware of besides the delight of the visual spectacle – to produce the visual effect, toxic heavy metals like barium, aluminum, lead, mercury salts, antimony, copper, and strontium are used in fireworks manufacture.

Some principal toxic elements, their uses in fireworks and their effects

Salient Research on the harmful Effects of Fireworks

  • A case study has shown that within 1 hour of fireworks displays, levels of Strontium in the air increased 120 times, Magnesium 22 times, Barium 12 times, Potassium 11 times, and Copper 6 times more than the amount present in the air before the event. Strontium was found to be the best tracer in this study because it measured very high during the event and much lower at other time intervals which indicated that it was mostly a result of the fireworks display. (Vecchi, Roberta. “The Impact of Fireworks on Airborne Particles.” appeared in Atmospheric Environment)
  • A study found that firework events brought air pollution spikes in suspended particles, Nitric oxide (NO), Sulfur dioxide (SO2), and created and dispersed an aerosol cloud hosting a range of metallic elements. The researchers found that although the “recreational pollution” from fireworks is transient in nature, the pollutants are highly concentrated and add significantly to the total yearly metal emissions and the particles are on average small enough to be easily inhaled which poses a health risk to sensitive individuals. (Moreno, Teresa. “Recreational atmospheric pollution episodes: Inhalable metalliferous particles from firework displays.” Atmospheric Environment Volume 41, Issue 5, February 2007)
  • Researchers have found that fireworks can create a burst of ozone which is an extremely reactive greenhouse gas molecule that can attack and irritate the lungs. The ozone is believed to be caused by ultraviolet light released by chemicals in fireworks – which in this study were sparklers. (Attri, Arun K. “Microclimate: Formation of Ozone by Fireworks.” Nature Volume 411, June 28, 2001)
  • A 3-week study in London recorded two major festivals celebrated with pyrotechnic events and found that they were marked by increased gas phase pollutant levels of Nitric oxide (NOx) and Sulfur dioxide (SO2), elevated PM mass concentrations, as well as trace metal concentrations, specifically Strontium (Sr), Magnesium (Mg), Potassium (K), Barium (Ba), and Lead (Pb). These changes in air quality were then related to the oxidative activity of daily PM samples by assessing their capacity to drive the oxidation of physiologically important lung antioxidants. Because of the elevated PM concentrations caused by firework activity and the increased oxidative activity of this PM source, the researchers believe more work needs to be done in examining if exposure to firework derived PM is related to acute respiratory outcomes. (Godri KJ, Green DC. “Particulate Oxidative Burden Associated with Firework Activity.” Environmental Science & Technology, October 1, 2010)
  • A study from 2010 attempts to estimate the probable health impact of exposure to the pollution caused by fireworks. Using risk data from epidemiological studies conducted in USA, the researchers estimated that when exposed to air pollution from fireworks, the relative risk of cardiovascular mortality would increase to as high as 125.11% and the relative risk for cardiovascular morbidity was found to increase 175.16% over a regular winter day. The authors conclude that further studies on control measures for firework displays are needed to help reduce the probable health hazards to the general public. (B. Thakur. “Air pollution from fireworks during festival of lights (Deepawali) in Howrah, India – a case study.” Atmósfera, Vol 23, No 4, 2010)

Fireworks’ adverse effects on the environment at various stages of their life-cycle 

- Manufacturing: Raw materials and energy are used to create the final firework product. Firework ingredients often come from elements that need to be mined from the earth. Mining is not exactly environmentally friendly. Minerals then need to be processed and isolated… often with chemicals. Fireworks use plastic plus paper & cardboard (which kills trees) and are all made at factories that pollute. - Transportation: Firework components are transported to the firework assembly plant, finished fireworks are transported to their various distribution centers and stores. Transporting may include planes, boats, and trucks. I don’t need to tell you the pollution that vehicles cause. And don’t forget that the consumer drives to purchase the fireworks, sometimes hundreds of miles to another state to bypass local restrictions. – Combustion:

  • Air Pollution: The smoke from fireworks consists mainly of fine toxic dusts (particulate matter) that can easily enter the lungs. This represents a real threat for people with asthma or multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Smoke from fireworks combustion may contain a mixture of sulfur-coal compounds, traces of heavy metals, and other toxic chemicals or gases. The combustion cloud can contain harmful fumes such as ozone, sulfur dioxide and nitric oxide. Smoke from consumer fireworks is of most concern because they are released at a low level which makes inhalation more likely compared to professional displays. Additionally, in this time where the issues of climate change and global warming are being presented with a sense of urgency, we need to be concerned about the greenhouse gases fireworks produce, which include Carbon dioxide (CO2) and ozone.
  • Water Pollution: Fireworks fallout can contaminate water supplies and residue on the ground can be carried away by rain and end up in our lakes, rivers, or oceans.
  • Noise Pollution: Fireworks can be loud and the vibrations can travel far. In the middle of the night fireworks often disturb people trying to sleep. Fireworks can exceed 140 decibels and noise at 85 decibels or above can damage hearing. Some people also argue the noise from fireworks scares pets and wildlife like birds, etc.

- Accidents: In 2000-2004, fireworks started an estimated 32,300 reported fires per year, including 2,700 building and vehicle fires. More fires are reported on the 4th of July than any other day of the year (“Fireworks.” National Fire Protection Association, April 2007)