Fireworks add fun to festivities, but they are a source of air pollution and respiratory complications
Hardly any festivity or occasion goes by without a fireworks display. The explosions, the colours and the overall thrill that comes with exploding fireworks, means that no celebration can go by without this festivity favourite.
But with the Chinese new year celebrations afoot, the world’s attention has been directed to the uglier side of fireworks as a major contributor to air pollution. For all their beauty and fun, there’s a steep price to pay as the compounds contained in fireworks are actually toxic.
To produce the colours you see in fireworks, manufacturers tightly pack tiny particles of metallic compounds including copper, lithium, and barium. To launch the fireworks into the air, aluminium or potassium compounds are used. These two compounds produce a lot of smoke. Perchlorates, which are highly reactive oxygen and chlorine compounds, are also used as propellants.
What happens when these compounds are released into the atmosphere?
Many pollution cases have been documented following the use of fireworks after festivities. A 2010 issue of the Journal of Hazardous Materials reported high levels of PM2.5 and a sheet of fine metallic dust that lingered over the city of Girona, Spain, following the Sant Joan fireworks fiesta of 28th June 2008.
During the Chinese new year celebrations in 2015, 106 Chinese cities were reported to have dangerous levels of air pollution. In India, it’s reported that 30% to 40% of respiratory problems are linked to Diwali fireworks. After the 2015 Diwali festivities (as well as in previous years), authorities reported that particulate pollution far exceeded the levels recommended by WHO and asked people to remain indoors.
Scientists have also reported that in the UK, pollution levels reported on Guy Fawkes day are the highest of any day during the year. While in the U. S, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) looked into PM2.5 concentrations on days before and following the 4th of July celebrations from 1999 to 2013 and found that particulate levels went up by an average of 42%.
Not only do fireworks pollute the air but when it rains, the pollutants are washed into lakes, rivers and other water sources, contaminating water with perchlorate. Consuming this water can result in thyroid problems.
What is being done to prevent firework-related air pollution?
Due to the increased awareness of firework-related pollution, most governments are now passing legislation to regulate their use. Indians in New Delhi have turned to the courts to enforce laws that seek to protect people, particularly children, from pollution.
For the 2016 new year festivities, authorities in China have restricted or banned the use of fireworks. Cities such as Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou have banned fireworks use in urban areas, while Beijing has restricted sale of fireworks and pledged to ban their use should pollution levels get to orange or red.
Where fireworks are used, you can also take the following precautions to limit exposure:
- Do not set off fireworks in enclosed spaces, even though the space is large and has a high roof
- Avoid using hand-held sparklers
- Stay upwind of any firework display
- Make sure you have your pollution mask on if attending a firework display
- If you have high sensitivity to pollutants, stay indoors
- Keep your home sealed to prevent particulates from entering your house.