Fireworks - Cheap Thrills with Toxic Consequences


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

The Polluting Patriot -- How Fireworks Pollute -- The Toxic Elements -- Research
Fireworks Alternatives -- More Thoughts on Fireworks -- References

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??

firework impacts 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?

Fireworks Cause Unnecessary Toxic Air Pollution
What's fun about the pollution from fireworks?

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.

  • Combustion:

    • 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??

The Toxic Elements of Fireworks - Pick Your Poison

Toxic Element Fireworks Usage Toxic Effect of Fallout Dust & Fumes
Aluminum brilliant whites Contact dermatitis, bioaccumulation
Antimony sulfide glitter effects Toxic smoke, possible carcinogen
Arsenic compounds

Used as colorants. Sadly still out there. [3]
Toxic ash can cause lung cancer, skin irritation and wart formation.
Barium Nitrate glittering greens

Poisonous. Fumes can irritate respiratory tract. Possible radioactive fallout. [4]

Copper compounds
blues Polychlorinated dioxins and dibenzofurans. [5] Can bioaccumulate. Cancer risk.

Hexachlorobenzene (HCB) [5]
Use was supposed to be banned globally. Persistent environmental toxin. Is a carcinogen, mutagen and a reproductive hazard [13].
Lead Dioxide / Nitrate / Chloride oxidizer Bioaccumulation, developmental danger for kids & unborn babes, may remain airborne for days, poisonous to plants & animals
Lithium compounds blazing reds Toxic and irritating fumes when burned
Mercury (Mercurous chloride) chlorine donor Toxic heavy metal. Can bioaccumulate.

Nitric oxide
fireworks byproduct [6] Toxic by inhalation. Is a free radical

Nitrogen dioxide
fireworks byproduct [6] Highly toxic by inhalation. SIDS risk [8].
Ozone fireworks byproduct [7] Greenhouse gas that attacks & irritates lungs
Perchlorate -
Ammonium & Potassium
propellant / oxidizer Can contaminate ground & surface waters, can cause thyroid problems in humans & animals
Potassium Nitrate in black powder Toxic dusts, carcinogenic sulfur-coal compounds
Strontium compounds blazing reds Can replace calcium in body. Strontium chloride is slightly toxic.
Sulfur Dioxide gaseous byproduct of sulfur combustion Acid rain from sulphuric acid affects water sources, vegetation & causes property damage. SIDS risk [8].

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.

    environmentally friendly laser light show a laser light show is a good alternative to fireworks a laser light show will not pollute water supplies like fireworks kite at night with LED's a stunt kite show would be fun

    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.

Cheap Fireworks = Cheap Thrills = Toxic Air Pollution
Cheap fireworks give inexpensive thrills but what about the pollution???

Fireworks - Cheap Thrills or Head for the Hills?

Personally I take the health risk from fireworks very seriously. Around the 4th of July I try to always be hiking or camping and seeking shelter outdoors... as far away from the noise and toxins as possible. If for some reason I can't be on the trail backpacking then I'll hole up indoors next to my air filter. I think we need to become more socially responsible in regards to fireworks. The smoke from consumer fireworks take away peoples right to breathe clean air. This is ironic because the 4th of July is Independence Day, yet people who are sensitive to the clouds of smoke that cover metropolitan areas are held prisoner indoors as they flee the toxic firework fumes.

We also need to be more environmentally responsible as well. When you buy fireworks you are buying the whole pollution cycle... from the beginning to the end of the product. We should be concerned about how all the pollutants related to fireworks can affect our environment and our health. Fireworks not only pollute the air and water with heavy metals, etc. but they also cause noise pollution and physical litter. Does anyone enjoy picking up stray fireworks (bottle rockets, etc.) from their yard, garden, etc? When I hear about fireworks safety it makes me laugh because the pollution from these colorful displays of toxic exploding materials doesn't seem safe to me. It really seems to me that the cheap thrills that fireworks provide are just an empty distraction and really have nothing to do with the actual true recognition of a particular holiday. Besides the big 4th of July holiday in the US, in the UK on the fifth of November... Guy Fawkes Night (aka Bonfire Night) is frequented with fireworks, and there is also the environmental disaster that is Diwali over in India.

Take a Stand Against Fireworks

  • Write, call, or meet your local or state officials and tell them your concerns regarding outdoor air pollution and noise pollution from fireworks.
  • The Clean Air Act permits state and local governments to enact laws relating to the prevention and control of outdoor air pollution.
  • Pollutants discharged by fireworks also need to be regulated in accordance with the Clean Water Act. Recently some environmental groups have caused the cancellation of some fireworks shows held over water, after threatening organizers with a Clean Water Act lawsuit for lacking the appropriate permits.
  • Boycott outdoor fireworks displays and encourage others to do the same.
  • Have your local police department enforce any laws pertaining to fireworks.
  • Educate others by sharing the pollution dangers of fireworks. Bookmark and Share this Page

Senseless Air Pollution from Fireworks
Fireworks are truly hazardous to the environment.


[1] "Fireworks." National Fire Protection Association, April 2007

[2] American Fireworks Standards Laboratory Standards, September 2006, page I

[3] Steinhauser, Georg. "Heavy metals from pyrotechnics in New Years Eve snow." Atmospheric Environment Volume 42, Issue 37, December 2008

[4] Steinhauser G and Musilek A. "Do pyrotechnics contain radium?" Environ Res. Lett. 4 034006 July-September 2009

[5] O. Fleischer. "Release of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans by setting off fireworks." Chemosphere Volume 39, Issue 6, September 1999

[6] Russell, Michael S. The Chemistry of Fireworks. 2000

[7] Attri, Arun K. "Microclimate: Formation of Ozone by Fireworks." Nature Volume 411, June 28, 2001

[8] Dales, Robert. "Air Pollution and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome." Pediatrics Vol. 113 No. 6 June 2004

[9] Vecchi, Roberta. "The Impact of Fireworks on Airborne Particles." Atmospheric Environment Volume 42, Issue 6, February 2008

[10] Moreno, Teresa. "Recreational atmospheric pollution episodes: Inhalable metalliferous particles from firework displays." Atmospheric Environment Volume 41, Issue 5, February 2007

[11] Godri KJ, Green DC. "Particulate Oxidative Burden Associated with Firework Activity." Environmental Science & Technology, October 1, 2010

[12] B. Thakur. "Air pollution from fireworks during festival of lights (Deepawali) in Howrah, India - a case study." Atm�sfera, Vol 23, No 4, 2010

[13] "Hexachlorobenzene (HCB) in Fireworks - Guidance Note" The Environment Agency, September 2010

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