Do we need fireworks?

July 3rd 2015

Nithin Coca

This Fourth of July, chances are that many Americans will end up at a fireworks performance. Watching brilliant arrays of light against the night sky is a popular, historic past time. Unfortunately, there is a dark side to fireworks – pollution, both chemical and plastic, which, as fireworks sales boom, is becoming an increasingly pressing environmental challenge.

A Growing Problem

Fireworks have two major negative impacts on the environment – first, they are laden with chemicals. From the gunpowder that shoots the explosive into the air to the compounds that provide its characteristic bright colors, these chemicals find their way into waterways and soil, and several of them have been connected to health conditions that impact humans.

A major challenge facing environmental advocates, and city officials, is lack of quality research. A common problem in Environmental Public Health is how hard it is to connect a specific health problem to a particular chemical. So even though perchlorate, high on the list of fireworks' fallout, is known to negatively affect the thyroid gland, it is hard, if not impossible, to determine if any particular case of thyroid infection comes from firework-related pollution.

But when you consider that fireworks have not only perchlorate, but also barium (a radioactive chemical used to produce brilliant green colors in fireworks displays) and copper (produce blues and contain dioxins which has been linked to cancer) along with cadmium, lithium, antimony, rubidium, strontium, lead, and potassium nitrate, all with their own detrimental health and environmental side effects, there is a strong case for limiting their use. 

The second environmental problem is the plastic packaging and components found in many consumer fireworks – the ones Americans can buy at seasonal fireworks shops or online. In cities that allow residents to use fireworks, this plastic waste can end up in waterways, clog sewers, or pollute lakes. They can choke animals, suffocate marine life, and, in certain situations, can be nearly impossible to remove.

One of the arguments in support of fireworks is that they are used too infrequently to be a real problem, and whatever impact they do have will be tempered with time. The problem is that fireworks use is skyrocketing in America - growing from 41 million pounds in 1980 to 225.3 million pounds last year, and that's just for consumer fireworks. For example, last year, there were municipal fireworks shows taking place around the San Francisco area, with the chemicals falling gently into the ecologically rich – and critically important – San Francisco Bay.

There is even a fireworks lobby – the American Pyrotechnics Association, which pushes for cities and states to allow for greater fireworks sales while also coordinating industry safety standards. At press time, there was nothing on their website about the environmental impact of fireworks.

Greening Fireworks

There are moves to develop cleaner, greener fireworks, coming chiefly from the same place those colorful explosives first emerged – the arms industry. In fact, according to the BBC, the United States Army’s Pyrotechnics Technology and Prototyping Division has found more eco-friendly replacements to the oxidizers that sets off explosions. These alternatives could reduce the use of perchlorate and other chemicals found in gunpowder.

The Walt Disney Company, which has regular, frequent fireworks performances in its popular theme parks, has attempted to reduce their impact by using compressed air to launch fireworks, reducing smoky particulates in the air and perchlorate in nearby water.

The challenge is that ecofriendly fireworks are much more expensive than traditional fireworks, which come increasingly from China. For cities and companies with larger budgets, such as San Francisco or Disney, ecofriendly fireworks make sense, but for consumers on small budgets, the traditional fireworks you can buy at a store off the interstate are much cheaper.

Do we really need Fireworks?

There is a growing push from some environmentalists that fireworks are not necessary. Though they are beautiful, they do not fulfill any function in society, nor provide any benefit beyond entertaining people just a few times a year. They argue that we could do with fewer fireworks, have performances focused on large city gatherings or special events, and use greener technologies. Some advocate for laser shows or other types of festivities, such as street performances.

At the very least, environmentalists say that if you do buy your own fireworks, pay a bit more for ones that use cardboard or paper packaging – those, at least, will decompose in nature and are much less of a threat to wildlife. Of, if you can find it, purchase biodegradable fireworks, such as these Japanese-made ones.