The Case for Forgoing Fireworks This Year

Droughts across the country make it just too dangerous.

Fireworks banned

Karl-Friedrich Hohl/ Getty Images

Fireworks are an American Independence Day tradition, going back to 1777 when John Adams called for celebrating 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."

Here on Treehugger, we have often complained about fireworks, and even my own wife has criticized me: "there goes Treehugger again, sucking all the fun out of life." But this year it's different.

Drought Monitor
USDA

This North American Drought Monitor map is a month old at the time of writing, but it shows most of western North America as tinder dry. The east is abnormally dry to going through moderate to severe drought. Some cities like Portland, Oregon have recently been through the hottest temperatures on record; it is surprising that the forests haven't spontaneously exploded. The city has just banned all fireworks, with Portland Fire and Rescue Chief Sarah Boone saying in a statement:

“If we don’t take this proactive step now, I fear the consequences could be devastating” said Chief Boone. “It is not easy to make a decision like this so close to our national holiday but as Fire Chief I feel I have a higher responsibility to sometimes make unpopular decisions during unprecedented times to protect life, property and the environment.”

However the department, which has the motto "Always Ready, Always There" isn't actually either, and doesn't plan on enforcing the ban because they do not have the resources. As spokesperson Rob Garrison told Oregon Live, "To some extent, it doesn’t matter what we do, people are going to light illegal fireworks anyway."

Fireworks have also been banned in parts of Washington State, (this tweeter is not happy) California, and some communities in Utah where, according to the Associated Press, many Republican lawmakers are against any kind of ban, with GOP Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton suggesting that it might make things worse.

“We’re just coming out of this pandemic where people already felt like government was restricting them in so many ways. When you issue bans arbitrarily, we could have a situation where people who weren’t going to light fireworks purposely go and buy fireworks to just send a message to government.”

Because the rules are so inconsistent, varying from town to county to state, people are just driving until they can find fireworks. The Christian Science Monitor describes how Wyoming has no restrictions, so people are driving from all over. "Business is booming at fireworks stores, including sales of products prohibited elsewhere. The parking lots fill on weekends, and many cars have out-of-state plates."

In much of North America, fireworks regulations are local, and political. in 2021 there is the added pressure to let people enjoy themselves after missing most fireworks displays in 2020 due to the COVID-19 lockdowns. Everybody just wants to have a good time and nobody wants to be a killjoy. So the fireworks, legal and illegal, will be happening, and likely, so will the fires that follow.

New Study Confirms the Danger of Particulates From Fireworks

Setting off fireworks in Brooklyn
Setting off fireworks in New York.  Stephanie Keith/ Getty Images

Treehugger has previously either reported or ranted about the dangers of particulate matter (PM2.5) from fireworks, and a new study from the University of California- Irvine confirms that Increased use of household fireworks creates a public health hazard.

Researchers used 750 automated real-time air quality PurpleAir sensors that people have in their homes. and built a map tracking PM2.5 particles before, during, and after the 4th of July celebrations. According to UCI News:

"Scientists from UCI’s Program in Public Health found that short-term, extremely high-particulate-matter air pollution from the widespread use of fireworks spiked during the periods of late June through early July in 2019 and 2020. The increase was most pronounced in Southern California counties where fireworks regulations are less strict than in northern parts of the state and where the illegal use of do-it-yourself pyrotechnics is also more prevalent."

It's not evenly distributed either, but disproportionately affects poorer people who are often lighting off illegal fireworks in the streets. Study co-author Jun Wu, UCI professor of public health, notes that "like many other environmental justice issues, we find the worst impacts among residents of low-income communities.” The study notes that there is also a Covid-19 effect:

"The results showed that over 67% and 81% of counties experienced immediate impacts related to fireworks in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Relative to 2019, the peak PM2.5 concentrations on July 4th and 5th 2020 were, on average, over 50% higher in California, likely due to the COVID-19-related increase in the use of household-level fireworks."

So while in 2021 the main reason for forgoing fireworks is fire, let's not forget the particulates, and the perchlorates, and the puppies.

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