Whether it is Independence Day in the US, Diwali in India, Lantern Festival in China and Taiwan, or New Year’s celebration, many of us want to celebrate by watching fireworks light up the night sky. For years, huge fireworks have been staged in many parts of the world to attract visitors. Firework displays can range from backyard shows with family to city-sponsored spectacles viewed by thousands.
By now, most of us are aware of the serious hazards posed by setting off fireworks. In the US alone, nearly 10,000 people are treated in emergency rooms with fireworks-related injuries every year. The estimated cost of these injuries exceeds $100 million annually. Statistics also show that most fireworks injuries occur to the hands (34%), eyes (17%), and face (12%). Governments addressed this concern by enacting tougher legislation designed to restrict firework use.
However, scientists warned that using fireworks can further destroy our environment. Previous studies revealed that fireworks cause extensive air pollution in a short time, leaving dangerous toxins, metal particles, and harmful chemicals in the air for hours and days. Some of these toxins never fully disintegrate. They stay in the environment. As a result, they poison all they come into contact with.
Toxic Chemicals in Fireworks
Fireworks have existed for many centuries. The American Pyrotechnics Association (APA) reported that there’s evidence that the first “natural” fireworks were invented in ancient China between 200 and 101 BC. It is believed they were made from bamboo, which needed to be exposed to fire to explode. Eventually, a Chinese alchemist invented gunpowder which was then used to create the first chemical fireworks.
Today’s fireworks are still made with gunpowder, which is made up of potassium nitrate (an oxidizer), charcoal or carbon (fuel), and sulfur (an accelerant). The charcoal-sulfur fuel is burned as the potassium nitrate feeds oxygen to the fire, producing volumes of hot and rapidly expanding solids and gases. But, the potassium nitrate is often replaced by perchlorate because it can be too unstable and messy for some uses. Perchlorate, which has become the go-to oxidizers of the pyrotechnics industry, is a family of chemicals all featuring a central chlorine atom bonded by four oxygen atoms.
However, studies revealed that perchlorate is both detrimental to people’s health and our environment. According to Treehugger, the only modern sustainability site that offers advice, clarity, and inspiration for both the eco-savvy and the green living novice, this chemical can limit the human thyroid gland's ability to take iodine from the bloodstream when emitted in the air in high doses. It’s important to maintain the natural amount of iodine in the bloodstream because it controls a variety of body functions. Without it, people can develop a wide range of disorders. Many scientists also argued that perchlorate can stay in the air for days, eventually destroying our environment.
A 2007 study, for instance, revealed that perchlorate levels spiked more than 1,000 times above the baseline level for 14 hours after a fireworks display in Oklahoma lake. Researchers said that this research was the most concrete evidence yet that fireworks release perchlorates into waterways. Another study conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection found perchlorate levels up to 62 micrograms per liter at eight groundwater-monitoring wells on the Dartmouth campus, near where fireworks are regularly fired.
Fireworks can also lead to substantial air pollution problems. According to Forbes, a global media company focusing on business, investing, technology, entrepreneurship, leadership, and lifestyle, the concentrations of airborne pollutants during the Diwali festival of lights in 2019 were pushed even higher than normal in already severely polluted Dehli. Researchers also found out that other toxic chemicals and gases are emitted into the air due to these fireworks.
For instance, one study found that fireworks create a “burst” of ozone, which is an extremely reactive greenhouse gas molecule that can attack and irritate the lungs. Another study in 2007 found that fireworks increased nitric oxide (NO) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). It also created and dispersed an aerosol cloud containing a variety of metallic elements.
Toxic Metals in the Air
Previous studies revealed that fireworks not only have mass concentrations of fine particulates but also trace concentrations of heavy metals, specifically strontium (Sr), magnesium (Mg), potassium (K), barium (Ba), and lead (Pb). A case study found out that within 1 hour of fireworks displays, strontium levels in the air increased 120 times, magnesium 22 times, barium 12 times, potassium 11 times, and copper (Cu) 6 times more than the amount already present in the air before the event.
These heavy metals add to the toxic pollution in the air. Recent research conducted by researchers from the NYU Grossman School of Medicine also found out that levels of toxic metals were higher in samples taken near Independence Day and New Year's Eve celebrations than at any other time of the year. They found lead, titanium, strontium, and copper in those fireworks used. Unfortunately, the presence of these metals has impacts on human cells and living animals.
According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, the researchers exposed human lung cells and several dozen mice to emissions from different types of fireworks commonly sold in the US. They detonated fireworks such as the Black Cuckoo, the Color Changing Wheel, and the Blue Storm firecracker in a chamber in the lab. The findings revealed that while metals like lead, copper, and other toxins give fireworks their vibrant color, they also damage human cells and animal lungs.
Of all fireworks that were analyzed, the Black Cuckoo was found to be the most toxic. The team reported that it is 10 times more damaging to human cells than a non-toxic saline solution. The researchers revealed that lung exposure to particle emissions from five types of firework significantly increased oxidation, a chemical process in the body that can damage or even kill cells if left unchecked.
"While many are careful to protect themselves from injury from explosions, our results suggest that inhaling firework smoke may cause longer-term damage, a risk that has been largely ignored," study senior author Terry Gordon, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine at NYU Langone Health, said.
Thus, many environmentalists have been pushing to ban or at least control the usage of fireworks. According to them, the most eco-friendly alternative to fireworks is to forgo explosions altogether. Instead, do other activities that are harmless to the environment.