Hey there! It’s summer. And it is fireworks season in the US. Fireworks have been around for hundreds of years and are enjoyed by many. However, fireworks can also also spook pets, wild animals and can injure people. And, as it turns out, fireworks have an impact on the environment and human health. But what is the link between fireworks and the environment? That is what we will discuss in this post.
This post was sort of a spur-of-the-moment post in light of all the recent fireworks. I hope you enjoy.
What are fireworks?
Fireworks are small explosive devices used for entertainment displays. Fireworks have a small tube (called an aerial shell) that contains explosive chemicals that create lights, colors, and sounds. They are used around the world to create light displays for entertainment purposes, most often for holidays or at theme parks.
Americans purchase more than 258 million pounds of fireworks every year from the American Pyrotechnics Association.
Fireworks and air pollutants:
Fireworks are known to be a source of air pollution. A large body of research has found that fireworks and firecrackers can increase outdoor ambient particulate matter levels. Particulate Matter (PM) is considered a major air pollutant, and can cause harm to the lungs and cardiovascular health (to read more about PM, see this piece). PM10, a larger particular matter, has been found to be significantly increased by firework displays.
Furthermore, fireworks can add metals to the atmosphere, including aluminum, antimony, barium, copper, lead, magnesium, potassium, strontium and titanium. Fireworks have also been found to increase the amounts of trace metals, ions, elemental and organic carbon emitted into the air.
For example, research has found that fireworks increase levels of strontium, magnesium, barium, potassium, and copper. Arsenic is also added to some fireworks, and exposure to this harmful heavy metal and known carcinogen also carries risk.
Research also shows that the pollutants remain suspended in the air for a period of time, indicating that fireworks and firecrackers can have lasting impacts on air quality.
It is also possible that these particles end up in soil. Fireworks impact water quality, too. Research has identified fireworks as a source of perchlorate in water. Perchlorate blocks iodide uptake into the thyroid and can cause decreases in thyroid hormones related to metabolism and neurodevelopment, among other functions. In addition to the explosion of fireworks, firework manufacturing sites have also been identified as a source of perchlorate contamination.
Additional research has found that air concentrations of hexachlorobenzene (an animal carcinogen) increase by a factor of 10 during fireworks, and remain elevated the day afterwards.
Studies on Fireworks and Human health:
Researchers are also beginning to explore the impacts of fireworks on human health. As noted by a 2017 Lancet, because fireworks add a significant amounts of air pollutants to the environment, many of which are known to irritate human health.
A 2018 study that measured the impacts of Diwali fireworks on air quality and human health in India found that PM10 concentrations were 81% higher on firework days than other days, and that concentrations of metals, cations, and anions increased by 51%, 72% and 77% respectively. The study also identified an increase in hospitalizations for respiratory symptoms during firework periods compared to non-firework periods.
As alluded to earlier, PM can also have an impact on cardiovascular health.
Several studies have also found that fireworks release potentially harmful heavy metals, including lead and copper, into the air. A recent study that measured the existence of 10 different fireworks found that they release a significant amount of particulate matter, as well as lead, titanium, strontium, and copper, into the air.
This study also measured the impacts of these exposures on human cell toxicity and in animals by exposing them to amounts of firework pollutants similar to what would be found in the air in Manhattan on New Year’s day. The authors found that the particles can cause a significant increase in cell reactive oxygen species (a marker of inflammation) in bronchial and lung cells compared to exposure with a nontoxic saline solution, which was used as the control.
Furthermore, a study that measured hazardous metal in ambient air due to New Years celebrations from 2004-2011 in Hawaii concluded that exposure to these particles and pollutants could cause health risks.
Improving the impacts of fireworks on the environment moving forward:
To protect human health, firework organizers can set up the display so that spectators are upwind; however, this technique still emits pollutants to the atmosphere at large.
There are a couple of things that can be done to decrease the risks associated with fireworks. First and foremost, it is possible to find alternative forms of entertainment. Light shows or other forms of celebration can be useful and less polluting.
For those who wish to use fireworks, one can decrease the frequency and volume of fireworks used, and ensure fireworks are not set off in enclosed spaces. There is also hope that manufacturers are working to make fireworks safer and more eco-friendly moving forward.
Take home: Fireworks and the Environment
Fireworks emit a variety of pollutants, many in significant amounts. These pollutants can cause health risks for humans, and may be disruptive to wildlife. Care should be taken to improve the safety of fireworks moving forward.
If you liked ‘Fireworks and the Environment’ you may also like:
- What is PM 2.5?
- Air pollution and human health
- What does it mean when your phone says ‘Unhealthy Air Quality for Sensitive Groups?’