Fireworks create highly toxic gases and pollutants that poison the air, the water and the soil, making them toxic to birds, wildlife, pets, livestock — and people — but there are environmentally-friendly alternatives available
People around the globe have decided that public fireworks shows are the best way to celebrate important holidays and events. We celebrate the birth of the New Year, freedom and triumph of good over evil by lighting things up. We all know fireworks can be dangerous. If we know someone who has been injured by fireworks, it is likely that they have also been in an accident. However, most people don’t realize the dangers of fireworks to the environment and the health effects on their bodies.
A firework is basically a small pyrotechnic weapon that explodes in a specific manner, producing loud explosions and bright flashes of light. These brilliantly colored explosions are where the problems begin.
The Toxic Elements in Fireworks — Choose Your Poison
The visible chemistry and physics that create fireworks’ colors are responsible for their unique appearance. Specifically, fireworks’ colors are dependent upon solid metal salts or chemical explosives (this part is the chemistry) which create colors when heated to the right temperatures (this part is the Physics).
Different metal compounds give different colors. One example is that lithium (Li), sodium (Na), and copper (Cu) salts give off pinks, while sodium (Na), salts give off yellow or orange. Copper (Ba), barium (Ba), and calcium (Ca), salts give off red.
While heavy metals in fireworks may experience a temporary physical alteration, metal salts and explosives in fireworks undergo chemical changes through the combination with oxygen (combustion). This chemical reaction produces smoke and gases, including carbon monoxide and nitrogen. These are the main greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
These metal salts don’t ‘burn up’ during an explosion. These metal atoms are still present and can end up in aerosols that cause poisoning of the soil, water, and air. These metals can be inhaled or ingested and cause a wide range of symptoms, including vomiting, diarrhea, asthma attacks, kidney disease, and cardiotoxic effects.
Fireworks produce a toxic cloud of fine particulates and poisonous aerosols, as well as heavy metals.
Air pollution is the most obvious consequence of fireworks shows. How polluted is the atmosphere? The Air Quality Index measures daily air pollution levels, including fine particulate matter and aerosols. You might also enjoy this real time air quality index listing, which will show you how your air compares. Air quality index values range from 0 through 500. Anything above 401 is considered’severe’ and can severely affect both healthy individuals as well as those suffering from existing respiratory diseases.
The concentrations of airborne pollutants increased in already heavily polluted Dehli during the Diwali festival. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, this festival featured many fireworks. The resulting pollution reached 500 in some parts of the city, including at the international airport.
Not only do fireworks add a lot of fine particulate matter, but they also release dangerous gases and aerosols into the atmosphere. One study showed that fireworks can create a “burst of ozone” ( ref). This is a highly reactive greenhouse gas molecule which can irritate and attack the lungs. While ozone is normally made by sunlight’s ultraviolet light, the study revealed that it was created by ultraviolet light from sparklers.
A 2007 study also found that fireworks increase nitric dioxide (NO) as well as airborne fine particulate matter (SO 2). It also creates and disperses an aerosol cloud with a variety metallic elements ( ref ). These pollutants were extremely concentrated and small enough that they could be inhaled easily. This poses a risk to sensitive people and increases the annual metal emissions.
India is not the only country experiencing dangerous increases in airborne particulates and gaseous pollutants. Three-week study conducted in London over two major festivals, which included fireworks, revealed that there were elevated gas phase pollutants of nitric dioxide (NO x) as well as sulfur dioxide (SO 2). These gases are the primary contributors to acid rainfall and important climate change gases that can also irritate the throat and lungs. The study also revealed elevated concentrations in fine particulates and trace amounts of heavy metals such as strontium, magnesium, potassium, barium, Ba, and lead ( ref).
But one fireworks display can add more heavy metals to the atmosphere. Is it really that much? It’s not true. One case study showed that strontium levels increased by 120 times within an hour of fireworks displays. Magnesium rose 22 times, barium increased 12 times and potassium increased 11 times. Copper (Cu) was 6 times higher than what was in the air prior to the event ( ref).
The pollutants that are released from fireworks can travel far away from their source. Numerous studies have shown that pyrotechnics-tagged heavy metals travel 100km (62 miles) in mild weather. This is in the span of a two-day period. ref and ref. Strontium, vanadium, potassium, titanium, barium, and magnesium were all traced. These heavy metals contribute to the harmful effects of air pollution. These heavy metals have environmental effects that go beyond the air. They are also washed out by rain and build up in local watersheds.
While most cities have fireworks displays only on two to three nights per year in urban areas, the average show at Disneyland or Disney World is 230 minutes. They cancel their scheduled shows when it is bad, and they have their shows cancelled on nightly basis. These parks are the biggest consumers of fireworks in the United States. A 2003 report states that the Disney parks consume 90,000 pounds of fireworks each year ( link). This number may have been higher in the past. The Magic Kingdom, EPCOT and Hollywood Studios all have more shows than any other.
Even though fireworks are temporary, the harmful chemicals they release into the environment are persistent. Each year we add more. Don’t forget about other sources of pollution. The accumulation of toxic chemicals is extremely concerning.
Health effects of pyrotechnic polluting
Although there isn’t much research currently on fireworks’ health effects, they use a number of persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals (PBTs). We know that PBTs can remain in the environment for long periods of time and are resistant to degradation. They also easily enter the food chain and quickly accumulate.
However, an epidemiological study was done in 2010 to assess the potential health effects of fireworks pollution. It found that the relative danger of cardiovascular death rose to as high as 125.11%, and that the relative threat for cardiovascular morbidity rose by 175.16% compared to a normal winter day ( ref).
Hospital admissions for asthma or other breathing problems are higher the day after a fireworks display.
Environment pollution from pyrotechnics
Clean and safe drinking water is becoming more scarce and precious due to climate change-induced droughts. To reduce the risk of fire, many urban fireworks shows are placed over or near a body of water. This increases the number of fireworks pollutants in the water. One study showed that perchlorate levels in the surface water of a municipal pool located near a fireworks display spiked after 14 hours. They reached levels between 24 and 1028 times their baseline level, but dropped back to the background level within 20 to 80 day ( ref ). Perchlorate is an organic chemical that is used in fireworks and other explosives. Another study showed that perchlorate was found in groundwater as well as surface water, particularly in the vicinity fireworks manufacturing sites and fireworks display areas ( ref).
There is much research on perchlorate contamination, but the ecological and health impacts have not been fully evaluated. Perchlorate contaminants have been identified as potent thyroid disruptors and have far-reaching ecological effects ( ref).
We must not forget the harmful effects of heavy metal pollution in already polluted areas. In Spain, a 2016 study found significant increases in heavy metals in the central park, where fireworks were launched. The toxic cloud of fine particles and heavy metals pollution also drifted outside the city centre ( ref ). The study also found that some metals were elevated above the background levels for several days following the fireworks launch. Additionally, a reservoir of metal-containing dirt remained in the urban area and could be inhaled.
It’s easy to forget that loud, unexpected noises like fireworks explosions can be a danger to your health. These sounds are not only unavoidable but can also cause hearing damage (ref), mental health episodes in people with PTSD (ref) and can result in life-threatening injuries to animals, birds, and wildlife (more here, here, and here).
It is also important to note that while airports like Los Angeles International compensate residents who are affected by aircraft noise, entertainment parks such as Disneyland are not subject to the same accountability. What makes fireworks shows so special?
There are other ways to celebrate important events, you know.
Each firework purchase is more than just the big bangs and bright lights they produce. They are a polluting product. Their creation begins and fades to an unknown end. Also, fireworks can distract from the real reason for the holiday.
To honor important holidays, you can choose from a range of other activities that will not harm the environment or cause any damage to people’s health. On most holidays, I have been birding and bicycling. You might choose to participate in a parade or organize a community drumming circle. Or you might want to go hiking, camping, stargazing, or volunteer at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. You have many options. Your imagination is the only limit.
Encourage your local civic leaders to use a laser light show or community drone instead of fireworks.
These facts don’t take into consideration the huge financial cost of fireworks, the extensive toxic litter cleanup, security costs, and increased fire risk. I am asking you: Are fireworks worth the damage they cause? Are these really the best ways to spend your money and time?
Dabrina D. Hollander, Kevin D. Perry and Thomas A. Cahill were the authors (1999). Effects of indoor pyrotechnic displays on the air quality in the Houston Astrodome, Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, 49:156-160 | doi:10.1080/10473289.1999.10463790
Arun K. Attri, Ujjwal Kumar & V. K. Jain (2001). doi:10.1038/35082634
Teresa Moreno and Xavier Querol were joined by Andres Alastuey. Mari Cruz Minguillon was also present. Jorge Pey, Sergio Rodriguez and Jose Vicente Mir o were also present. Recreational atmospheric pollution episodes: Inhalable metalliferous particles from firework displays, Atmospheric Environment, 41(5):913-922 | doi:10.1016/j.atmosenv.2006.09.019
Roberta Vecchi, Vera Bernardoni, Diana Cricchio, Alessandra D’Alessandro, Paola Fermo, Franco Lucarelli, Silvia Nava, Andrea Piazzalunga and Gianluigi Valli (2008). The impact of fireworks on airborne particles, Atmospheric Environment, 42(6):1121-1132 | doi:10.1016/j.atmosenv.2007.10.047
Krystal J. Green, Gary W. Fuller and Manuel Dall’Osto were among the authors. Particulate Oxidative Burden Associated with Firework Activity, Environmental Science & Technology, 44(21):8295-8301 | doi:10.1021/es1016284
B. Thakur and S. Chakrabarty (2010). Fireworks during the festival of lights (Deepawali), Howrah (India) — A case study. Atmosfera. (3):347-365 ( PDF).
Kevin D. Perry (2011). Effects of Outdoor Pyrotechnic Displays on the Regional Air Quality of Western Washington State, Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, 49(2):146-155 | doi:10.1080/10473289.1999.10463791
M. R. Sijimol & Mahesh Mohan (2014). Environmental impacts of perchlorate with special reference to fireworks–a review, Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, 186(11):7203-7210 | doi:10.1007/s10661-014-3921-4
Teresa Moreno and Xavier Querol, Fulvio Alastuey and Jorge Peya. Fulvio Amato. Fulvio Amato. Jorge Peya. Marco Pandolfi. Nino Kuenzli. Laura Bouso. Marcela Rivera. Wes Gibbons (2016). Effect of fireworks events on urban background trace metal aerosol concentrations: Is the cocktail worth the show? Journal of Hazardous Materials, 183(1-3):945-949 | doi:10.1016/j.jhazmat.2010.07.082