Pollution Spikes from Fireworks

The health hazard from fireworks is under appreciated by most people. Even though fireworks displays are relatively brief, the pollution is very intense, and can linger for several hours into the early morning. In fact the most toxic particles are the smallest, “ultrafines,” and they can remain in the atmosphere for several days. A 2015 nationwide survey found that for the 24 hr period of 8 pm on July 4th, to 8 pm on July 5th, particulate pollution levels spike throughout the country to an average of 42% higher than normal summer days.

The highest particulate pollution concentrations ever recorded on the Wasatch Front has been during the few hours following fireworks displays on July 4th and 24th. For example, one year they recorded particulate levels of 900 ug/m3. To put that in context, that is almost 30 times higher than the EPA’s 24 hr standard, and twice as high as the worst pollution days in Beijing, China.

As high as the particulate pollution spikes are, that is not even the greatest public health concern. Pollution from fireworks displays is more toxic than that from vehicle tail pipes, wood stoves, and industrial smoke stacks. The brilliant colors from fireworks plumes are created by a wide array of heavy metals, some of them radioactive–barium, strontium, lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, aluminum, antimony, lithium, and toxic chemicals like hexachlorobenzene and perchlorate.

Communities throughout the country, including in Utah, are trying desperately to get lead out of their drinking water. They shouldn’t have to be exposed to lead, and other toxic heavy metals in the air they breathe.

Four states–Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York–ban all fireworks, including sparklers, every day of the year, and these are all states with less pollution and wild fire potential. States that allow only small fireworks that appeal primarily to children, like sparkers, are Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, and Vermont. Many of the remaining states have much greater restrictions than Utah does.

With the extreme pollution created by large fireworks, the triggering of brush fires, the noise and sleep disturbance provoked, the stress on pets and veterans with PTSD, it is certainly time for all of us to reconsider our love affair with fireworks.