7 reasons to rant about fireworks

Muskoka fireworks
via Explorers' Edge

It's time to declare our independence from these dangerous and polluting anachronisms.

It's a tradition on TreeHugger. Every year before Independence Day we write about what a problem fireworks are. Sure, people have been firing them off since 1777 to celebrate independence from English rule (they previously were fired off on the King's birthday) and they are symbols of independence and freedom. John Adams wrote in 1776 (getting the date wrong):

The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival..... It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

One commenter complained after Obamacare was approved that fireworks should be cancelled because America was no longer independent and free, but was now a socialist state; I suppose this year the fireworks will be yuuuge, Trumpian in scale. But as we keep noting, fireworks are not without problems that might have even been regulated by the EPA if there was an EPA that regulated. In fact, Americans are firing off more fireworks than ever, almost a pound per person, and more and more states are loosening their rules. (In 1976 it averaged a tenth of a pound per person.)

The problems include:

1. Percholorates

This is the one that should worry people who get their drinking water out of lakes where fireworks are fired. Perchlorates act as the oxidizer for the propellants that launch the fireworks. According to Scientific American,

Perchlorate in the environment is a health concern because it can disrupt the thyroid’s ability to produce hormones needed for normal growth and development. Besides its potential to cause endocrine system and reproductive problems, perchlorate is considered a “likely human carcinogen” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Studies have found that perchlorate levels spiked dramatically in lakes after 4th of July fireworks, as much as a thousand times the normal background level. "After the fireworks displays, perchlorate concentrations decreased toward the background level within 20 to 80 days, with the rate of attenuation correlating to surface water temperature. " So we basically contaminate our drinking water on the first day of summer. It might be a better idea to do fireworks on Labor Day.

2. Particulates

particulate levels© Dian J. Seidel study

Small particulates have become one of the most worrisome pollutants in recent years; PM 2.5 (particulates with sizes below 2.5 micrometers) significantly affect the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. In the U.S., a 24-hour average level over 35 μg/m3 is considered hazardous. But a recent study, "Effects of Independence Day fireworks on atmospheric concentrations of fine particulate matter in the United States," demonstrated that the 24-hour average is increased by 42 percent, spiking up to 35.

At one site adjacent to fireworks, hourly PM2.5 levels climb to ∼500 μg/m3, and 24-hr average concentrations increase by 48 μg/m3 (370%). These results have implications for potential improvements in air quality models and their predictions, which currently do not account for this emissions source.

This is like spending time in Beijing on its worst smog days.

3. Heavy Metals

chemicalsBackcountry Attitude/Screen capture That's what makes all the pretty colors. A Canadian study found that consistently shooting off fireworks in one place can cause these metals to accumulate. According to the CBC:

"If [they] do a decade of fireworks and [they] do them monthly throughout the summer every year for 10 years, [that's] having a cumulative effect on ecosystems and that's certainly something we need to keep in mind whenever we're trying to understand these types of events and what impacts they're going to have," said Meaghan Murphy, the Ottawa Riverkeeper's staff scientist.

4. CO2 and Ozone

According to Inverse,

Overall, the gunpowder used in the roughly 240 million pounds of fireworks bought for Independence Day releases about 50,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Based on estimates from the EPA, a forest fire in the continental U.S. produces 18 metric tons of carbon per acre. So the amount of carbon emissions from all Fourth of July fireworks is about equivalent to the amount of carbon produced by a single 2,700-acre wildfire in the continental United States.

Sparklers are apparently the worst. According to one study, Microclimate: Formation of ozone by fireworks, published in Nature, "We have discovered a surprising source of ozone which is generated in spontaneous bursts even in the absence of sunlight and nitrogen oxides — namely, the exuberant mass of colour-emitting sparklers that are lit during the Diwali festivities, which take place every year during October and November in Delhi, India." Sparklers also emit serious amounts of chemical particles. One study concluded:

Large proportions of the metals making up the sparking material are released into the atmosphere. Information based on chemical analyses of pristine and burned sparklers is compared to the relevant data relating to the released nanoparticles. Their small size and the presence of barium suggest that the use of sparklers as a children’s entertainment should be reconsidered.

5. Safety

fireworks statistics© FiveThirtyEight

I find it hard to believe that people actually give sparklers to kids to wave around; I wouldn't give a kid my propane torch to play with, but sparklers are even hotter and cause a lot of injuries. The Wills Eye Hospital warns that eye injuries are endemic, and that sparklers are particularly dangerous.

Despite the popularity of consumer fireworks, the devices can cause blindness and disfigurement and each year they prompt severe injuries across the nation including corneal burns, ruptured or lacerated eyeballs, and retinal detachments.

According to Five Thirty Eight, fireworks caused roughly 11,400 injuries and eight deaths in 2013. Half of the injuries were sustained by people under 19; 31 percent were from sparklers, and 36 percent were injuries to hands and fingers.

They are a serious fire hazard

Certainly in the Northeast and in Ontario, Canada, this is less of a problem this year than in the past, given that it has not stopped raining and everything is sodden. But the National Fire Protection Association notes:

In 2011, fireworks caused an estimated 17,800 reported fires, including 1,200 total structure fires, 400 vehicle fires, and 16,300 outside and other fires. These fires resulted in an estimated eight reported civilian deaths, 40 civilian injuries and $32 million in direct property damage.

6. It's really cruel to animals

scary for pets© Petaluma Animal Services Foundation

Fireworks evidently really flip dogs out. According to the London Ontario Humane Society, "This infrequent exposure doesn't allow canines to ever become accustomed to these explosive booms." Said Humane Society executive director Judy Foster, "It's no wonder that fireworks send many dogs into trembling and fearful states."

PetMD actually recommends that you "sound-proof and white-noise your house starting well in advance of the festivities. TVs, radios, heavy curtains, closed windows and lots of AC (if you can afford it) work wonders. Hanging out in the most cozy, shut-in room can handle the problem, too." Other options include boarding your pet, or even sedating.

The London Humane Society recommends:

  • Speak calmly and cheerfully to your dog without coddling him. Dogs are more likely to be anxious if their owners are acting as though something is wrong.
  • Keep your dog inside during fireworks. It's never a good idea to bring dogs to a firework display; they may pull out of their collars to escape.
  • Close blinds or curtains, or place a blanket over your dog's crate to block out flashes of light from fireworks.
  • Keep windows and doors closed to prevent a panicked escape.

7. Fireworks can lead to hearing loss

In Europe there is a trend to "quiet fireworks" because of the damage noise can do to wildlife and people. According to the New York Times, "In Britain, venues close to residents, wildlife or livestock often permit only quiet fireworks. One town in Italy, Collecchio, passed a law in 2015 that all fireworks displays must be quiet."

For people, loud fireworks can lead to hearing loss. The World Health Organization lists 120 decibels as the pain threshold for sound, including sharp sounds such as thunderclaps. Fireworks are louder than that. “They’re typically above 150 decibels, and can even reach up to 170 decibels or more,” said Nathan Williams, an audiologist at Boys Town National Research Hospital in Nebraska. Dr. Williams also sees higher traffic to his clinic after Independence Day. “We usually see a handful of people every year,” he said. “In these cases, hearing loss is more likely to be permanent.”

Of course none of this matters when people want to have fun; it's all a lost cause. Even my own wife complained two years ago: "There is TreeHugger again, sucking all the fun out of life." But seriously, we should get rid of sparklers and think about the noise and the pollution and perhaps cut back a bit.

And here are all the previous rants, in case you missed them:

2006: The Prettiest Pollutants
2007: Fireworks: Fun for the Whole Family or Dangerous Water Contaminants?
2008: Fireworks: The Annual Whine About Their Environmental Impact
2009: Oh No Mommy! Will the Greenies Take Fireworks Away From Us?
2009: Fireworks: Ungreen Or A Necessary Part Of Ringing In The New Year?
2009: Fireworks Fizzle or Fizzle Shizzle?
2010: Turkish Town Bans Fireworks to Save Sea Turtles
2011: The Annual Green Whine: It's Time To Lose The Fireworks
2012: 'In Addition to Their "Regular" Poison, Fireworks are Extra-Dangerous This Year
2014: It's time for the annual whine about fireworks. They are dangerous, they are polluting, and we should grow up already.
2015: Once again, the annual whine about fireworks.
2016: It's time for the annual whine about fireworks, but with fresh new reasons

Tags: Chemicals | Holidays

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