There is no question that people love pyrotechnic displays. Fireworks have become a technicolor backdrop for holidays such as Victoria Day, Canada Day, New Year's Eve, sports events, festivals and other events in celebration and in remembrance. On a warm and clear evening, the reds, blues, greens and golds blooming in the sky and reflected in the water are as spectacular a sight as one could wish for accompanied by an exciting sense that anything might happen. Fireworks displays are viewed by many as a time honored tradition but times are changing. Extensive research, studies and testing over the years has established that although fireworks are quiet beautiful they pose many wildlife, environmental and citizen related concerns.
The colorful explosions may seem to disappear all too soon into the night sky but the byproducts of fireworks don’t just vanish, there are always remnants left behind, some of which are considered harmful waste. In addition to this is the concerns to do with noise and the light bursts both having a negative impact on people, wildlife, companion animals, farm animals and the environment often overlooked in the past.
Fireworks are often set off over water, because setting them off over land creates a risk of fire. Once thought to be a good move this is the equivalent of trading in one concern for another as 'what goes up must come down.'
Fireworks displays propel chemicals into the atmosphere that cause extensive air pollution in a short amount of time, by way of a toxic fog of fine metal particulates (particles), dangerous toxins, harmful chemicals and smoke in the air for hours, affecting local air quality. Further to this fine metal particulates, chemicals and product remnants quietly raining down and settling into lakes, other bodies of water and inland. Fine particulates are defined as airborne matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less, which are considered a health risk because they are easily inhaled and penetrate indoor spaces due to their small size.
Some of the chemicals and heavy metals used in fireworks dissolve into the water supply and drinking water for people and wildlife. Other chemicals and heavy metals never fully decompose or disintegrate, but rather hang around in the environment. The chemicals, metals and fireworks remnants that wash-up on a shoreline and/or end up inland can leach into soil causing further contamination.
Additionally, to produce the oxygen needed for an explosion, many fireworks contain oxidizers known as, perchlorates. Perchlorate is used in a variety of industrial products including: solid rocket fuels by the military and aerospace industry, missile fuel, fireworks and fertilizers. These can dissolve in water, contaminating lakes, rivers, the adjoining tributaries and drinking water.
Although much of the perchlorate present in pyrotechnic devices is transformed into harmless compounds during combustion, any remnants of the chemical that fall back to earth can enter into the soil and water. When ingested, perchlorate is absorbed by the thyroid gland in place of iodine, which can interfere with the production of thyroid hormone, an essential part of metabolism and mental development. As a result, perchlorate exposure may be particularly harmful to fetuses.
Studies before and after annual fireworks displays have found that the perchlorate concentration in the water increased significantly in the hours after the show, typically exceeding maximum allowable levels for drinking water. The levels took between 20 and 80 days to return to normal. It is during that time harm can set in.
The airborne drift of contaminants can also be affected by the wind.
All of the above having the potential to harm people, wildlife, companion animals, farm animals and the environment. This has lead to a growing number of communities banning fireworks over lakes used as drinking water sources and some communities have banned fireworks displays completely e.g. Vancouver. Other communities are looking to follow suit.
Note: Please note the adverse effects of fireworks displays are concerning on any scale but are in relation to the number of fireworks used in a display, duration of the display, types of fireworks used and frequency of displays.
Another concerning aspect of fireworks displays is the risk of starting a fire. It only takes one spark. Small scale fireworks displays in peoples backyards run the risk of causing fires.
WHAT CHEMICALS ARE USED IN FIREWORKS?
The heavy metals that colorize fireworks are a reason for concern, and unlike perchlorate, they're not used up during the combustion reaction. What you start with is also what you end up with. They can get aerosolized and breathed in and/or they go into the soil and water.
The vivid colors in firework displays come from metallic compounds that include: strontium carbonate (red fireworks), calcium chloride (orange fireworks), sodium nitrate (yellow fireworks), barium chloride (green fireworks) and copper chloride (blue fireworks). During the explosion, these metal salts do not ‘burn up’. They are still metal atoms, and many of them are end up aerosolized in the air, the water and the soil.
When inhaled or ingested these metals can cause a variety of short and long term reactions, ranging from vomiting, diarrhea or asthma attacks, to kidney disease, cardiotoxic effects and are linked to a variety of cancers. Pick your color each one has a different chemical composition and poses health concerns to people, wildlife, companion animals, farm animals and the environment.
Particularly harmful is barium, used to produce green; studies suggest it may cause respiratory problems, among other maladies. Studies found that barium was present in the water a fireworks display.
WILDLIFE & ECOSYSTEM CONCERNS
The contaminants and remnants from fireworks displays that end up deposited in water bodies for miles around can effect the health of the fish, turtles, loons, otters and all manner of wildlife residing in the lake as well as the wildlife that drinks from it and dogs that may at times enter the water. Aquatic, terrestrial and avian species have been known to ingest discarded fireworks remnants confusing it with food and thinking it is edible.
Wildlife depends on one another to live. Animals are part of the food web and eat plants and/or animals to survive. Food webs describe the feeding connections between organisms in an ecosystem. Meaning contaminants run the risk of accumulating in the food chain and causing damage to the organisms in it, particularly in the predators at the end of the chain. Accumulated toxic compounds cannot be excreted.
Fishing is a very big economic draw to various communities. To ensure a healthy fish population just like humans fish need a clean uncontaminated environment to thrive. The metal particulates, toxins and chemicals contained in fireworks that end up in a lake or other bodies of water can affect the fish, the vegetation, micro-organisms, ecosystem and people as many of the fish caught are intended for human consumption.
WILDLIFE & COMPANION ANIMAL CONCERNS
The intensity and duration of the noise fireworks and the bright flashes of color cause confusion, panic, fear and anxiety in wild animals (terrestrial and avian) as well as companion animals (dogs, cats, etc) and livestock.
Exposure to unexpected, unpredictable loud noises can cause phobias in many animals, increasing panic reactions to loud noises in the future.
It is estimated that one-fifth of disappearances of animals who are companions to humans are due to very loud sounds, mainly fireworks and storms.
Animal shelters report increases in stray animals and injuries and trauma to animals.
Some newer, ‘cleaner’ fireworks replace perchlorates with safer alternatives, or use compressed air to reduce smoke created. While one would expect these greener fireworks would be readily available they are not as widespread as should be the case. Eco-friendly fireworks versions are used at enclosed venues and in some theme parks that have daily shows, but they're significantly more expensive than their traditional counterparts.
It is important to note that most of these eco-friendly products are not completely green. There is a reason why fireworks makers use certain chemicals and replacing these with alternatives have not been easy without hindering the product quality. In other terms, technology and science have not improved enough to make a viable, cost effective alternative to standard fireworks. The problem has been to find chemicals that are as explosive and water resistant as barium and perchlorate.
Overall, the fireworks industry has moved towards a more sustainable model, which means enough of an effort has been shown to have been made to lessen the concerns but there isn’t a big difference on the impact.
Cost, performance inadequacies and availability have contributed to why cheap and dirty fireworks often out of China are still typically the pyrotechnic of choice.
ALTERNATIVES TO THE USE OF FIREWORKS
There is a growing acceptance of alternatives to fireworks, such as laser/light shows. If you must see the sky festively illuminated, you might want to try a laser light show, which creates dazzling displays of color without launching dangerous chemicals into the air that end up in bodies of water and/or leaching into the soil. They may consume lots of energy, but so does the rampant production of single-use fireworks.
Laser/light shows may be more eco-friendly but they are not without concerns to wildlife including animals, plants and microorganisms. All wildlife have a definitive rhythms based on the unchanging day, night, and seasonal cycles. These rhythms are crucial to animal behavior such as sleeping, reproduction, and predation. With extensive research supporting the fact that artificially altering the night-time environment causes a disruption to the rhythmic cycles aforementioned.
In conclusion, the message we hope that people take from this post is that being better equipped with knowledge in these times and not wanting to impact any species or the environment in a negative way it is within our ability to opt for the most kind and environmentally conscious alternative being to forgo explosions and unnatural light displays altogether.
The entertainment value is very short lived but the potentially harmful effects can linger. Anyone fully giving the matter consideration will no doubt agree that fireworks aren't as pretty as they look.