When we think of pollutants, we usually imagine smog and car exhaust. To most of us, pollution is something dirty and disgusting. We can easily pick out what’s hurting our environment by how ugly it looks—fumes from factories, waste in rivers, and so on.
But what about when pollution is pretty? Holidays like the Fourth of July are massive celebrations, often centered around bright displays of lights in the sky. We launch firework after firework, basking in their colors while our children play with sparklers. However, those very fireworks could be limiting our children’s futures.
The Impact of Smoke on Air Quality
Each time a city, business, or family sets off a firework, they are lowering overall air quality. The smoke released from fireworks is full of small metal particles, often referred to as particulate matter, which fill the air. These metals are how fireworks get their colors and can work their way into the smallest crevices of our lungs. The health effects can include asthma attacks, lung disease, and more..
Blue fireworks are made of copper. Red fireworks are made with strontium and lithium. Green and white fireworks are made from barium. These are the chemicals found in everything from batteries to rat poison. Would you burn those and breathe in the fumes?
And aside from the colors, even more smoke is released from actually launching the fireworks. Both potassium and aluminum are used to push the fireworks through the air, in addition to perchlorate. These compounds are the same used by NASA to launch space shuttles and militaries to fire rockets. Again, would you willingly breathe in those fumes?
Global Air Quality Concerns Related to Fireworks
Of course, a single firework won’t signal the end of the world. The issue is that holidays like the Fourth of July and New Years result in thousands upon thousands of communities launching mass amounts of fireworks into the air. All of the smoke released by these fireworks combines to create lasting problems.
For instance, fireworks are launched every year in Spain for the Girona Sant Joan festival. Afterward, smoke and metal particulate matter from the fireworks can stay in the air for up to a week. And while a week may not sound like a long time, particulate matter stays in your lungs once it gets there. That means that the fireworks are hurting air quality and resulting in health issues long after they’re launched.
And that’s not even the worst of it! During India’s festival of lights, Diwali, countless families and cities lacuna fireworks into the airs. The pollution released from the fireworks alone rivals a high pollution day in Beijing—one of the world’s worst cities for air quality.
Of course, the effects are limited to the open air. German tests have shown that soccer celebrations involving flares, fireworks, and smoke bombs flood soccer stadiums and other public spaces with airborne particulate matter. The condensed, enclosed nature of these spaces magnifies the problem.
Furthermore, the particulate matter released from fireworks eventually falls back to earth. Unburnt materials and metals collect in the soil, eventually remixing into the air or washing into water sources such as lakes and rivers. This can lead to issues such as thyroid problems as a result of contaminated drinking water, further exacerbating the problem.
Fireworks Hurts Air Quality So Much
While we drive cars every day and it may be easier to attribute our problems with air quality to more obvious sources of air pollution, fireworks can be a major contributor! In fact, some studies have shown that fireworks are more harmful to our lungs than more traditional sources of pollution, resulting in greater health concerns.
The effects of fireworks on air quality are also impacted by the density of the pollution. While a factory may release pollution incrementally, firework celebrations release mass amounts of pollution all at once (especially in cities with large celebrations). That mass exposure can make it harder for our bodies to fight off the particulate matter and also over-concentrate particulate matter in the air, lowering air quality at a more drastic rate.
Limiting the Impact of Fireworks on Air Quality
Fireworks may not ever disappear, but we can do our best to reduce both our use of fireworks and our exposure to their pollution. First and foremost, be mindful of where you use fireworks. Anything that results in fireworks being close to your body—from lighting them up in a garage to using a sparkler or Roman candle—puts you at greater risk of inhaling particulate matter. This also applies to large crowds during city-wide displays, as fireworks should always be placed downwind from viewing areas to avoid increased exposure.
Governments could also invest in regulating firework pollution and its effects on air quality the same way other pollutants are regulated. For instance, cars often have filters to limit the amount of particulate matter released into the air. Fireworks, on the other hand, have no such standards in most countries.
Of course, the easiest answer is to outlaw fireworks entirely. However, that comes with cultural concerns and an overall sense of party-pooping. Instead, we can invest in research on how to improve fireworks, making them more environmentally. Or maybe cities can invest in drone light displays or other technological alternatives that mimic fireworks without the harmful smoke and particulate matter.