Are Fireworks Bad for the Environment?

A fireworks display lighting up the sky.

Oatawa / Getty Images

Fireworks are essentially rockets in their simplest form. They produce noise, light, smoke, and sometimes even explode into floating materials, like confetti. They can be designed to burn in all different colors and patterns, so people often set off a number of them consecutively to create an interesting fireworks display or show.

Historians believe fireworks originated in ancient China in the second century B.C., when they were made from bamboo stalks and gunpowder that would explode when thrown into a fire. They were said to ward off evil spirits.

By the 15th century, fireworks had become popular in Europe, commonly used for religious festivals and public entertainment. And when the U.S. settlers left Europe, they brought fireworks with them and made them a central part of the first Independence Day, a tradition still followed today.

Fireworks are wildly popular, but they have been linked to air pollution increases, and environmentalists are concerned about their negative effects on wildlife.

Although they're fleeting and infrequent, fireworks shows spray out a toxic concoction that rains down quietly into lakes, rivers, and bays throughout the country. Many of the chemicals in fireworks are also persistent in the environment, meaning they stubbornly sit there instead of breaking down.

What Are Fireworks Made Of?

Skyrocket collage background
Katsumi Murouchi / Getty Images

Fireworks contain a small shell, called an aerial tube, that holds explosive chemicals. The shell itself contains things called stars, which are made of an oxidizing agent, a fuel, a metal-containing colorant, and a binder. When lit on fire, the oxidizing agent and the fuel chemically react to create extreme heat and gas. The colorant produces color and the binder holds everything together.

Traditional fireworks contain a blend of charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate, also known as gunpowder. When a spark hits the gunpowder, the potassium nitrate feeds oxygen to the fire to facilitate the burning of the charcoal-sulfur fuel.

Modern fireworks are often made with perchlorates instead of potassium nitrate. Perchlorates are chemicals that feature a central chlorine atom bonded to four oxygen atoms. Although their effect on the environment is still a question mark, studies have shown that perchlorates are hazardous to the health of mammals, including humans. Data has shown that the presence of perchlorates may impact the health and fitness of certain animals by causing their thyroids to swell and threatening normal growth and development.

There are bacteria in nature capable of breaking down perchlorates, which suggests that perchlorates are biodegradable under certain conditions. The perchlorates and particulates most likely do not pose a long-term threat. While it typically only takes a few hours for particulates to dissipate, the same can’t be said about perchlorates and some of the other chemicals fireworks contain.

Fireworks Contain Heavy Metals

The stars inside a firework are made up of heavy metals that produce their awe-inspiring colors. Like with perchlorates, the exact effect of fireworks’ heavy-metal fallout is largely still a mystery, though some studies suggest that the heavy metals have a seriously negative impact on human and environmental health.

Common heavy metal colorants in fireworks include:

  • Strontium (red)
  • Aluminum (white)
  • Copper (blue)
  • Barium (green)
  • Rubidium (purple)
  • Cadmium (various)

Air Quality Impacts

As seen after big events like Diwali in India, Independence Day in the United States, and New Year’s celebrations across the world, fireworks cause short-term declines in air quality. They release pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides as well as particulate matter and heavy metals.

Short-term exposure to air pollution is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory mortality and morbidity. The particles emitted from a fireworks display can damage cells and lungs in mammals.

Traces of New Year's fireworks
Trash left on the street after fireworks display. SKatzenberger / Getty Images

Wildfire Risk

Fireworks can inadvertently set fire to anything they come into contact with while they are actively burning. Because fireworks are typically set off outdoors, they can trigger a wildfire if they come into contact with grass, trees, or any other flammable organic material. Wildfires grow quickly and can easily consume any plants and animals in their way.

To minimize wildfire risk while lighting off fireworks, they should be lit in an open area. Remove any tree branches that could fuel a fire and always have water nearby so that you can put any small fires out immediately.

Treehugger Tip

Fireworks are illegal in many areas. These laws are made in an effort to reduce the risk of fires and other safety concerns. Check with your city or state before setting anything off. Violations can result in a hefty fine and sometimes even jail time.

Plastic Pollution

Fireworks are typically packaged in plastic. It doesn’t burn up when the firework explodes and people often leave it behind after they’ve finished celebrating. That plastic pollutes the environment and can even make its way into marine ecosystems. Plastic pollution in our oceans is a serious problem that pollutes the water and harms wildlife.

Some major fireworks displays, like the one central to Sydney, Australia’s New Year’s Eve celebration, are opting for fireworks packaged in biodegradable paper. Others have community beach cleanups the following day to properly dispose of plastics.

Firework Alternatives

Wat Arun at night, Bangkok, Thailand
Laser light show in Bangkok, Thailand.

Sanchai Loongroong / Getty Images

The most eco-friendly alternative to fireworks is to forgo them completely. You can celebrate in other ways that don’t involve plastic-covered explosives, like having a parade or throwing biodegradable confetti.

Another eco-friendly option that’s similar enough to fireworks displays is laser light shows, which illuminate the sky with fun colors and designs without launching pollutants into the air. While these shows do consume a lot of energy that comes from fossil fuels, so do fireworks shows and firework production in general. 

If you’re looking to entertain kids, consider building a bonfire in the backyard, making crafts, and camping out to mark special occasions. You can also set up a projector and watch a movie together under the stars.

Originally written by Russell McLendon
View Article Sources
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