Fireworks and Air Pollution: Why Fireworks Are Environmentally Irresponsible

Whether it’s for celebrating a national holiday, energizing a local festival, or just the strange amusement of seeing things blown up, Americans set off fireworks ranging from the cheap driveway rocket to the six-figure civic show. In creating and spectating pyrotechnic displays, though, few seem to consider the rather obvious link between fireworks and air pollution. The result is an environmentally irresponsible form of entertainment.

Fireworks and Air Pollution: Blackpowder (Gunpowder)

In order for fireworks to shoot up into the air and explode, a host of pyrotechnic chemicals are used, including the charcoal and calcium and sulfur compounds that comprise blackpowder (gunpowder). When fireworks are set off, these chemicals react to ignite and propel the explosives and then account for the bulk of the smoky, dusty mess that hangs in the air long after the luminary effects have faded. All one has to do is look at (and smell) the giant mass of particulate matter concentrated in the air after a large display to understand the extent to which fireworks and air pollution are synonymous.

Fireworks and Air Pollution: Metal Salts for Color

Along with the loud bangs and sizzling crackles of fireworks, people seem to enjoy the array of colors -bold reds, bright whites, shocking blues, and more. But this diversity of fireworks colors means more than just visual stimulation; it also means that a mix of metals are released into the atmosphere with every single explosion. To make those red, white, and blue fireworks, manufacturers pack the explosives with things like strontium compounds, magnesium, and dioxin-laden copper mixtures (respectively). And then there’s toxic barium for green, sodium nitrate for yellow, and a mix of for calcium compounds for orange. These are just a handful of the chemicals released into the air by fireworks displays and breathed by people in attendance, even in neighborhood settings where individual consumers light “backyard” fireworks just feet away from friends and family. As if the blackpowder required to blast fireworks into the air doesn’t constitute enough pollution, these metal salts – many of which are truly noxious – spread through our air and even into our water.

Fireworks and Air Pollution: There’s litter on the ground, too!

Aside from the pervasive air pollution caused by fireworks, there is physical litter created by the explosions. While not as environmentally harmful as the particulate matter released into the air from fireworks, this on-the-ground debris is a nuisance, detracting from the landscape and requiring extra time and money to clean up. America’s cities (and even our countrysides) already struggle with litter from the usual human sources, and fireworks only add to the problem, usually during the season when people are most likely to be outdoors.

Fireworks and Air Pollution: Final Thoughts

While it’s true that fireworks cause far less overall pollution than industry and vehicle emissions, it’s also true that fireworks are merely entertainment – just some short-lived eye/ear candy whose cultural value is questionable compared to its negative environmental impact. While we wouldn’t be able to eliminate all autos or factories and still recognize our 21st century society, I think we could feasibly cut out fireworks and still enjoy our holidays, festivals, and other special events with other means of celebration. We might even breathe a little easier for it.

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