A Toxic Fourth of July?

fireworks displayI’ll probably be called un-American, but do you ever wonder what is in the fireworks we use?  Several years ago, in the time before children when I actually remembered stuff, I visited my father in law in Alabama around the fourth of July.  He was getting married (again).  I remember a couple of things vividly from that trip – and one of those memories is the image of leftover fireworks debris contaminating the river that flowed behind his house.

I’m not sure of the name of the river – but many houses backed up to it and had piers and boat docks into it.  And, that 4th of July, everybody shot fireworks off of their docks and over the river.  The next morning the river was a swirling mess of trash and debris.  And I was told it was okay – that it would just get carried down the river.  (No one talked about where it went to . . . )

Now, I’m not as concerned with the debris from fireworks (although that matters too), but the chemicals in the fireworks – whether they are toxic to the environment or our health, and whether they persist.

Think about it – what goes up, must come down.

So what are fireworks?  Basically, they are an oxidant and a fuel.  Fireworks add colorants, binders and propellants to give the display.  Perchlorate is the oxidizer most commonly used.  But, perchlorate is a potential human health hazard.  It has been found in our produce and in breast milk.  It is linked to problems with the thyroid and hence, birth defects.  Perchlorate moves readily into groundwater.

Does the perchlorate in fireworks get into the environment?  Last year, Environmental Science & Technology published a study that found analyzed how fireworks displays over waters may contribute to perchlorate contamination.  The study collected and analyzed water samples from Oklahoma lake before and after fireworks displays for 3  years.  The results?  Perchlorate levels rose quickly after the displays, from 24 to 1,028 times the pre-display levels, and peaked about 24 hours after the display.  Within 80 days of the displays, levels had returned to background. 

So, perchlorate contamination occurs, but may not persist.  However, the study did not look at what happened to the perchlorate – just whether it was still present in the lake.

And what about the other stuff in fireworks?  Metals are used to give those pretty colors.  Red hues come from strontium, sodium glows yellow, barium burns green, and blues and greens come from copper.   Elevated concentrations of these metals have been found in the areas after fireworks displays.

Plus, the smoke and soot can cause health problems – particularly upper respiratory issues.

Researchers are working on greening fireworks displays, particularly for indoor events and regular outdoor events, such as at sporting events and amusement parks.  And these efforts are leading to greener fireworks.

One or two fireworks displays – what most cities have – are probably a small contributor to pollution.  But, if you can, encourage your town to investigate and invest in some greener fireworks options.

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