Photograph by Edmund Lowe via Getty Images

The grill is fired up and ready to go. You have been sipping out of a reusable water bottle all day. You and the kids are wearing reef-friendly sunscreen. Sounds like everything you need for a safe, eco-friendly Fourth of July, right?

What you’ve left out is fireworks, a staple of the 4th. Fireworks aren’t usually what comes to mind when we think of pollution, but these light shows pack quite the punch. What kind of impact do fireworks have on the environment?

With the coronavirus vaccines reaching communities nationwide, many cities are resuming their annual Independence Day firework shows. In other parts of the country, fireworks are banned outright to prevent forest fires. Here’s your guide to how the staple celebration effects the earth.

Brief History of Fireworks

Long before the first celebrations of July Fourth, fireworks were invented in China. Unsurprisingly, they were much more natural than the types of fireworks we see today. According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, hollow bamboo shoots were thrown onto fires. The heated air pockets would explode due to the heat. Later, Chinese alchemists created gunpowder. Gunpowder added to bamboo shoots to created larger explosions and the first fireworks.

Hollow bamboo shoots heated over a fire – American Pyrotechnics Safety and Education Foundation

On the first anniversary of Independence Day in 1977, Philadelphia celebrated with bells rung, bonfires lit, and explosive fireworks. This created the lasting tradition that we still observe today.

What’s in a Firework?

Today, fireworks are still made up of gunpowder – but also have a whole host of other chemicals. Beautiful colors are due to exploding heavy metals. Copper salts for blue and strontium salts for red. The beautiful glittery effect seen is from Antimony Trisulfide.

What Fireworks Leave Behind…

The compounds fireworks are made of aren’t all that’s left behind, though. According to a study published in Nature, lit fireworks emit smoke and greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide, ozone, and nitrogen oxides – gasses that greatly contribute to the greenhouse effect and climate change.

In addition to emitting greenhouse gasses, fireworks greatly increase the amount of fine particulate matter in the air. According to research done at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, air pollution can be up to four times worse than normal after a firework show.

Even in areas close to a city’s firework displays, the pollution travels on the breeze. In Ogden, Utah, pollution levels were 38 times higher than usual during a firework show. The national average is a 42% increase in air pollution around Independence Day.

Additionally, debris from fireworks are often left behind and become litter. On July 5th, 2018, volunteers collected 2 tons of debris left behind from fireworks along Mississippi’s beaches.

Firework debris like these plastic casings are often left littering beaches – Ellen Anderson

Heath Effects

According to the EPA, the fine particulate matter associated with any air pollution can cause many various health effects. Aggravated asthma, premature heart attacks, and decreased lung functions are just some of the symptoms people face due to particulate matter in the air. It can be even worse for children, the elderly, or people with preexisting heart or lung diseases.

Additionally, after the Fourth there is an increase of perchlorate emissions. Perchlorate is used in fireworks to help combustion but may cause thyroid disruption. This interferes with the thyroid’s ability to produce hormones.

Impact on the Environment

Not only do these emissions potentially hurt humans, but they also impact the wildlife that lives around us. The explosive fireworks can frighten nesting bird colonies, including blue herons and our beloved bald eagles. Frightened wildlife will flee – ending up in roads or other urban areas. Litter left behind from fireworks often is ingested by wildlife.

The greatest threat to wildlife are the wildfires started due to fireworks. In 2017, the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon was devastated due to a fire that started with fireworks. Portland Fire and Rescue has urged Oregon residents not to play with fireworks in natural areas.

With draughts and record high heat nationwide, the reminder to be careful when burning fireworks is vital.

Firework Free Alternatives

Fireworks are clearly bad for the environment, but by no means do they have an impact as large as plastic pollution, the oil industry, or global travel. And besides, there are still many fun and eco-friendly ways for you to celebrate the Fourth this year.

  1. If you are a fireworks lover, consider attending a local firework show rather than lighting up your own. This is both safer for you and better for the environment. If you do choose to light fireworks, keep water handy and hose them down after lighting. Also, be sure to dispose of any debris left behind.
  2. Attend a laser show rather than a firework show! This is all the spectacle of a firework show with much less of a footprint.
  3. If your local area has resumed community activities, participate in a local parade!
  4. Host your own party or campfire! Be sure to use reusable plates, cups, and silverware. At the end of the night properly extinguish any fires!
  5. Participate in a local July 5th beach cleanup to do your part in keeping the environment clean!

Have a safe and happy Fourth of July!

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