Almost since the moment Francis Scott Key immortalized the phrase “bombs bursting in air,” Americans have enjoyed lighting up the night sky on Independence Day with things that blow up in living color.
Experts note that a professional fireworks display is similar to setting off a series of small bombs that provide colorful visual effects to go with the noise. Those little bombs also pollute the air, the ground and the water they are often shot over to keep viewers safer.
(We won’t even talk about the noise pollution, which can reach 140 decibels.)
According to a report last month by the National Fire Protection Association, about 9000 people are treated each year in U.S. hospitals for fireworks-related injuries.
The highest injury rates were for children aged 5 to 14.
In 2010, an estimated 15,500 reported fires that were started by fireworks, making July 4th one of the busiest days of the year for fire departments. Those fires resulted in an estimated eight reported deaths, 60 injuries and $36 million in direct property damage.
How They Go Up and Blow Up
When I was a kid, my friends and I would go to the local drug store and buy bottles of sulfur and potassium nitrate (saltpeter). Then, we would grind up charcoal briquettes, blend all the ingredients in the proportions printed in the Encyclopedia Britannica and light it. Fire, sometimes explosions, resulted from our primitive gunpowder, also called black powder.
A similar black powder recipe, discovered by the Chinese as early as the 7th century, was used to propel the first fireworks into the sky and then make them explode. In China, fireworks were so popular by the 10thcentury that a profession emerged of individuals who had mastered the art and science of firework making.
Potassium nitrate provides oxygen—critical for combustion. Modern day pyrotechnics instead get their oxygen from potassium perchlorate and ammonium perchlorate, which have been shown to interfere with thyroid functioning.
A 2007 study in Oklahoma found that perchlorate levels were 1000 times above baseline level in a lake after a nearby fireworks show; a Massachusetts study found perchlorate contamination in groundwater near the Dartmouth College campus, where fireworks displays occur frequently.
There is always solid waste debris from blowing up fireworks—paper, cardboard and plastic. The smoke from the combustion may contain sulfur-coal compounds, traces of heavy metals, ozone, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and nitric oxide. For people with asthma or multiple chemical sensitivity, the smoke from fireworks may aggravate existing health problems.
One way to reduce the pollution involved in sending fireworks skyward is to launch them using compressed air. Disney World in Florida pioneered this approach to reduce smoke, fumes, and perchlorate pollution. The Walt Disney Company is the largest consumer of fireworks in the U.S.
Toxic Metals Provide the Color
That explains the boom. What about the wow factor from all those bright colors?
The color primarily comes from burning toxic metallic compounds. Here are some of the more common ingredients according to an article from Mother Nature Network:
Aluminum creates a blazing white light: too much exposure can impact mental functioning.
Cadmium is used in various ways to create various colors: it accumulates in fish and can cause kidney and lung damage in humans.
Copper compounds produce brilliant blues: when combined with perchlorate, dioxins are produced, which are highly carcinogenic.
Barium is used to create glittering greens: this metal accumulates in fish and can make people sick in high amounts (and can even lead to paralysis or death.)
Rubidium produces purple colors: while toxic in high concentrations, it is more likely to create skin problems.
Strontium burns ruby red: it can sometimes be radioactive and can affect bone growth in children.
Should We Worry About the Environmental Effects of Fireworks?
One blogger recently asked, “Is poisoning the air and water a patriotic way to recognize the 4th of July?”
But, considering all the other sources of pollution, most environmentalists just hold their breath and stare in awe at the night sky filled with brilliant colors. After all, coal-fired power plants release more toxic metals into the environment than fireworks ever could.
If you work with fireworks regularly or if you shoot off a lot of fireworks in your back yard, you might be getting overexposed to toxins. For the millions of people who go to professional public fireworks displays each year, exposure is pretty limited. But, families might want to limit the exposure of infants and children.
Some ardent environmentalists argue for replacing fireworks with laser light shows. They can also be spectacular…but they can’t replace the joy of seeing the red, white and blue flashes in the sky “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Richard Kujawski is Managing Editor for LivingGreenMag, an online publication that informs and educates readers on a range of environmental and lifestyle issues, and highlights various non-profit causes. Visit www.LivingGreenMag.com.
Editor: Bryonie Wise
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