Fireworks – Cheap Thrills with Toxic Consequences

by on July 18, 2019 · 13 comments

in Environment, Ocean Beach

Pollution from Fireworks is an Unnecessary Risk to Our Personal and Environmental Health

From Back Country Attitude

Why celebrate those special occasions by polluting?

Is poisoning the air and water a patriotic way to recognize the 4th of July??

Is unnecessary air pollution a good way to ring in the New Year??

Do you consider yourself environmentally conscious and responsible?? You might not know that all those colorful explosives used to celebrate special occasions…. (your firecrackers, skyrockets, Roman candles and yes even those so-called “harmless” sparklers)… pose a serious environmental and health danger from heavy metals and other toxic firework fallout.

So the next time you are about to set off or buy some cheap fireworks or even attend an outdoor fireworks display, ask yourself……. Is a few minutes of pyrotechnic entertainment really worth needlessly polluting the environment?

How Fireworks Cause Pollution

Fireworks contribute to polluting or damaging our planet in various ways throughout their life cycle.

Manufacturing: Raw materials and energy are used to create the final firework product. Firework ingredients often come from elements that need to be mined from the earth. Mining is not exactly environmentally friendly. Minerals then need to be processed and isolated… often with chemicals. Fireworks use plastic plus paper & cardboard (which kills trees) and are all made at factories that pollute.

Transportation: Firework components are transported to the firework assembly plant, finished fireworks are transported to their various distribution centers and stores. Transporting may include planes, boats, and trucks. I don’t need to tell you the pollution that vehicles cause. And don’t forget that the consumer drives to purchase the fireworks, sometimes hundreds of miles to another state to bypass local restrictions.


Air Pollution: The smoke from fireworks consists mainly of fine toxic dusts (particulate matter) that can easily enter the lungs. This represents a real threat for people with asthma or multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Smoke from fireworks combustion may contain a mixture of sulfur-coal compounds, traces of heavy metals, and other toxic chemicals or gases. The combustion cloud can contain harmful fumes such as ozone, sulfur dioxide and nitric oxide. Smoke from consumer fireworks is of most concern because they are released at a low level which makes inhalation more likely compared to professional displays. Additionally, in this time where the issues of climate change and global warming are being presented with a sense of urgency, we need to be concerned about the greenhouse gases fireworks produce, which include Carbon dioxide (CO2) and ozone.

Water Pollution: Fireworks fallout can contaminate water supplies and residue on the ground can be carried away by rain and end up in our lakes, rivers, or oceans.

Noise Pollution: Fireworks can be loud and the vibrations can travel far. In the middle of the night fireworks often disturb people trying to sleep. Fireworks can exceed 140 decibels and noise at 85 decibels or above can damage hearing. Some people also argue the noise from fireworks scares pets and wildlife like birds, etc.

Accidents: In 2000-2004, fireworks started an estimated 32,300 reported fires per year, including 2,700 building and vehicle fires. More fires are reported on the 4th of July than any other day of the year [1].

For the color effect of fireworks, toxic heavy metals like barium, aluminum, lead, mercury salts, antimony, copper, and strontium can be used in firework compositions. Outdated heavy metals that have been used in the past include rubidium and cadmium. Some toxic elements are supposedly not used in fireworks anymore like lead compounds, chlorates, and mercury as mercurous chloride (calomel), but some firework chemical outlets still sell some of these ingredients, they can still be seen in some pyrotechnic chemical lists, and homemade fireworks makers still sometimes talk about using them.

Many fireworks are imported from China which is scary because they have a proven track record of cutting corners by using cheaper, more toxic materials. Some of the metals also have radioactive isotopes… hopefully they aren’t being used in any fireworks. The American Fireworks Standards Laboratory (AFSL) has established a testing and certification program for Chinese and U.S. fireworks to determine if they are being produced according to AFSL Standards (which meet all U.S. federal requirements). There is a list of prohibited toxic chemicals in the standards but unfortunately participation in the program is voluntary for manufacturers and importers. Firework shipments that pass standards only assure that one random sample from the lot has been tested and met all requirements [2]. Will you trust the quality of your air to China??

Fireworks Research

A case study has shown that within 1 hour of fireworks displays levels of Strontium in the air increased 120 times, Magnesium 22 times, Barium 12 times, Potassium 11 times, and Copper 6 times more than the amount present in the air before the event. Strontium was found to be the best tracer in this study because it measured very high during the event and much lower at other time intervals which indicated that it was mostly a result of the fireworks display. [9]

Another study found that firework events brought air pollution spikes in suspended particles, Nitric oxide (NO), Sulfur dioxide (SO2), and created and dispersed an aerosol cloud hosting a range of metallic elements. The researchers found that although the “recreational pollution” from fireworks is transient in nature, the pollutants are highly concentrated and add significantly to the total yearly metal emissions and the particles are on average small enough to be easily inhaled which poses a health risk to sensitive individuals. [10]

Researchers have found that fireworks can create a burst of ozone which is an extremely reactive greenhouse gas molecule that can attack and irritate the lungs. The ozone is believed to be caused by ultraviolet light released by chemicals in fireworks… which in this study were sparklers. [7]

A 3 week study in London recorded two major festivals celebrated with pyrotechnic events and found that they were marked by increased gas phase pollutant levels of Nitric oxide (NOx) and Sulfur dioxide (SO2), elevated PM mass concentrations, as well as trace metal concentrations, specifically Strontium (Sr), Magnesium (Mg), Potassium (K), Barium (Ba), and Lead (Pb). These changes in air quality were then related to the oxidative activity of daily PM samples by assessing their capacity to drive the oxidation of physiologically important lung antioxidants. Because of the elevated PM concentrations caused by firework activity and the increased oxidative activity of this PM source, the researchers believe more work needs to be done in examining if exposure to firework derived PM is related to acute respiratory outcomes. [11]

Another study from 2010 attempts to estimate the probable health impact of exposure to the pollution caused by fireworks. Using risk data from epidemiological studies conducted in USA, they estimated that when exposed to air pollution from fireworks the relative risk of cardiovascular mortality would increase as high as 125.11% and the relative risk for cardiovascular morbidity was found to increase 175.16% over a regular winter day. The authors conclude that further studies on control measures for firework displays are needed to help reduce the probable health hazards to the general public. [12]

Fireworks Alternatives

  • How about we protect our health and the health of our outdoor environment by switching to an environmentally friendly laser light show?
  • How about a block party to celebrate?
  • A stunt kite show at night with some LED’s would be cool.
  • Try watching the stars or organize an outdoor movie.
  • Some people are organizing community drum circles and drumming instead of lighting fireworks.
  • Indoor fireworks projectors are small devices that can be used indoors that produce convincing reproductions of firework displays as well as simulating the noise of real fireworks.
  • Electronic fireworks display lamps produce colorful explosions of light all night long without the pollution or noise of real fireworks.
  • Electronic pyrotechnics don’t use explosives either. Electronic blasts can form a canopy up to 25 feet in the air that rain down glitter, confetti, rose petals or even candy.
  • Just imagine all the possible more meaningful and beneficial ways we could use all the money spent on fireworks that wouldn’t pollute our environment.

If you Must…

  • If fireworks must go on then displays should use air-launch technology, which utilizes compressed air to launch the fireworks instead of gunpowder, in combination with fireworks with low-gunpowder formulations. There is talk of new shells that use “biodegradable plastic” but what remains to be seen is if they are 100% non-toxic and leave no nano-plastic residues after breakdown, plus we still need to know what conditions they require to biodegrade.
  • Avoid Chinese made fireworks because of their pattern of using banned or more toxic chemicals without regard for the safety of the rest of the world.
  • Low-smoke pyrotechnics produce practically none of the smoke or ash that traditional black powder fireworks do. Although they are being tagged as environmentally friendly or “green fireworks” the combustion byproducts still contain carbon dioxide which is a harmful greenhouse gas and also trace amounts of toxic metal salts. In addition ammonium perchlorate could still be used as an oxidant which still has the potential to contaminate water supplies. In a positive note less heavy metal salts are needed to produce the color effects. Unfortunately fireworks will never be eco-friendly but will be subject to greenwashing that distracts people with good intentions from the overall negative environmental impacts.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard Agee July 19, 2019 at 5:02 pm

I just read in the San Diego Union Tribune 7/19/2019 Sea world has decided to re instate it’s Fireworks show . Just what all the Whales , Dolphins , Seals and Wildlife need , MORE FIREWORKS.


PuCKy HU July 23, 2019 at 7:36 pm

Fireworks are an American tradition and a dying art form (thanks to people like you who write crap like this). Obviously you have no idea how pyrotechnics work. You cant shoot fireworks up into the sky with compressed air, that’s complete nonsense. Trying to avoid Chinese made fireworks would be like trying to avoid Mexican food in a Mexican restaurant. You cant do it. Almost all professional and all consumer fireworks are made in China. So good luck with that. People drive thier cars everyday and cause way more pollution then any fireworks display (and when I say that I don’t mean one car causes more pollution than a professional fireworks display). People drive everyday, but people do not blow off fireworks everyday. The fourth of July and maybe a little on New Years (at least in America). That’s it and it’s not ruining the planet. Fireworks are beautiful and take lots of hard work to make. They bring joy to people and the people who make them. I LOVE FIREWORKS AND THEY WILL ALWAYS BE AROUND!! Not that crap that you are talking about either. “Green Fireworks” really? Never gonna happen. Those are not fireworks. That is poop that I scrape off my shoe.


Vern July 24, 2019 at 8:51 am

Traditions and art forms definitely die out, maybe rightly so, maybe not.
My sense is that if one day there were no more fireworks shows, few would argue the point.


PuCKy HU July 24, 2019 at 9:24 pm

This reply is for Geoff Page. Funny there is no reply button under his name. Anyway Geoff you haven’t said one thing to explain to me what it is exactly that I don’t know. What about pollution? So what are you saying fireworks are responsible for more pollution than all the fossil fuels we (including you) use? I could see if people were doing it all the time, but nobody does it ALL the time. Maybe Disneyland? Why don’t you write them and tell them to stop? They’ll play a small violin for you and send you on your way. So how was what I wrote crap? I’m passionate about something and I believe this whole article is propaganda. Airborne lead??? Lead isn’t even used in pyrotechnics!!!! Are you going to tell people to stop shooting guns? Same chemicals that are in gunpowder are a huge part of pyrotechnics (including gunpowder itself). You know what Geoff you are the old fart that lives down the street and calls the cops if so much as someone breaks wind too loud. Or you are a hippie vegan that drives a Prius (the tampon of automobiles). Either way don’t try to pretend you’re clever and say ,”you’re the one who writes crap like this” or “You have no idea what you are talking about.” Really? Explain.. We have to do a lot more than just illegalize ALL fireworks in order to fix (in my opinion a planet that was already messed up before I got here) this planet. As humans we are never going to get everyone on the same page before it’s too late. When our planet has one foot in the grave is when people will want to change. There are so many other things that are way worse that fireworks are insignificant.


Vern July 25, 2019 at 6:35 am

“… Lead isn’t even used in pyrotechnics!!!! Are you going to tell people to stop shooting guns? Same chemicals that are in gunpowder are a huge part of pyrotechnics (including gunpowder itself). …”


“…Shooting at firing ranges results in the discharge of Pb dust, elevated BLLs, and exposures that are associated with a variety of adverse health outcomes… Eliminating lead dust risk at firing ranges requires primary prevention and using lead-free primers and lead-free bullets…”

“… If a gun range isn’t ventilated well, lead dust collects on shooters’ clothing and hands and lingers in the air, where it can be inhaled. The more people shoot, the greater the risk of being exposed to dangerous amounts of lead…”


retired botanist July 25, 2019 at 8:13 am

Your advocacy for fireworks is about as elevated as a deflated balloon (and for the record, a lot of us are against helium balloons– want to rage about that, too, perhaps by telling me I’m full of hot air or calling me names?) Listen to yourself! Here are your irrelevant points:
1. The world was messed up before you arrived, so why bother.
2. Bullets have lead (so does fishing tackle, btw), so why not add more to the environment.
3. People always disagree, so we might as well pollute.
4. There are problems bigger than fireworks so we should ignore this one.
5. Geoff is an old hippie so dismiss his comments.
6. A Prius… I don’t even KNOW what that one was about…
7. Fireworks don’t happen all the time (unless its Seaworld) so its ok to wreck wildlife and adjacent aquatic environments. Is that like guns don’t kill all the time, so its ok to maim, threaten and create accidental deaths some of the time?

For Pete’s sake, if you’re going to offer a cogent argument in favor, try something a bit more fact-based, maybe even find a stat or two to support you point of view. Our planet already has “a foot in the grave” and many of us want change now. But commentary like your’s just makes that even more challenging. :/


Geoff Page July 25, 2019 at 10:46 am

Right on, retired botanist, power to the people! A hippie is a hippie, why does it matter if a hippie is old I wonder? I never understood why calling a person a hippie was considered a pejorative. Oh, sorry, Pucky, in case you’re reading this, considered a not nicey thing to say.


retired botanist July 25, 2019 at 3:22 pm

Haha, yeah, hippies, NIMBYs, socialists. whatever. Sticks and stones.
Kind of like the Repugnicants at the moment…all they can seem to do lately is name-calling. To wit, apparently the latest, Mueller is “feeble”. Really, that’s the best they can come up with? A taciturn individual is now called feeble. But I guess if one can’t find any content to intellectually debate, then just throw shade on the person and see if it sticks.
Geez, could someone up the IQ a little?! :-)


Geoff Page July 25, 2019 at 4:39 pm

It may not be a perfect oxymoron but uttering IQ and the Repugnicants – I like that, Repubn – I- cants – seems like it could be an oxymoron. They really showed their ass again didn’t they?


Geoff Page July 25, 2019 at 10:40 am

Pucker, you so funny. Ha .ha. ha. The cops won’t come just for breaking wind, I know I’ve tried it! Unresponsive bastards. And my Prius is disguised as a full size pick up truck so people won’t spit on me all the time. And the tampon comment, ha. ha, I can’t stop laughing.

I did not explain my objection to fireworks but I have two.

I don’t like to see anything more go into the ocean than we already dump there.

My biggest objection is that it scares the HELL out of animals. I’m on my third generation of dogs and I’ve had one in each generation that was terrified of the fireworks. Not just scared, TERRIFIED. I have to take my current frightened pup into the bedroom, turn the TV way up, and pet him constantly until it is over. I can only imagine what the animals at Sea World suffer.


Geoff Page July 24, 2019 at 2:48 pm

You are the one who wrote “crap like this” pucky, and you clearly have no idea what you are talking about.

Fireworks with compressed air:

American made

Comparing cars to fireworks, well there is no counter argument to a ridiculous argument.

I can’t imagine why you decided to write such an antagonistic response. Wait, yes I can, I think we all can.


Peter from South O July 25, 2019 at 6:21 am

Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3. Seems to work just fine.


Geoff Page July 25, 2019 at 10:41 am

Thanks, Peter, maybe some instructions to Pucky would help but write R e a l s l o w.


Leave a Comment

Older Article:

Newer Article: