A little essay on fireworks, air quality and…freedom

As I watched the July 4th New York City fireworks on television, the barges, tugboats and even the bright lights of the city started to fade into the smoke until only the highest and brightest fireworks could be seen at the end of the show.  I had to know, how bad is this for the atmosphere?  Apparently, very bad.  Last year, the July 4th fireworks show caused New York City to have the third worst air quality in the world (IQAir.com).  Normally, NYC has relatively good air quality, as it is ranked 3,628 out of 6,475 cities.  Except on July 4th and 5th.  

Now, in most states cars would not be allowed on the roads without an emissions test, and factories and refineries have emissions limits set by the EPA.  But on July 4th (and also in many cities on January 1), we are free to set off millions of pounds of explosives (in 2021 it was over 150 million pounds in the US).  Is a relatively short display of fireworks really worth the air pollution and body pollution it brings?  

In Boston, the US Army is in charge of “pulling the lanyards”, which means setting off the explosives in time with the orchestra’s famous rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.  One soldier said that his wife and 2 year old son were in attendance and quickly added that his son would be wearing earmuffs (to protect from the noise).  But what about his little lungs?

According to this 2014 review, copper, lead, sulfur, cadmium, aluminum, manganese, arsenic, iron dust, strontium, barium, antimony and benzene toluene are just some of the dangerous metals and salts released by fireworks.  These different elements are used in fireworks to get the different vibrant colors during explosion.  Because of these toxic metals, being downwind of a fireworks show is much more hazardous than getting caught on the wrong side of a campfire.  Children and adults with asthma,  and those with COPD and other respiratory conditions need to stay upwind and/or use N95 masks, according to Pallavi Pant, senior scientist at the Health Effects Institute (whyy.org). 

It’s not just Americans who go crazy with the fireworks.  Researchers in India discovered that airborne toxins like particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone stayed in the air for five days after Diwali Festival fireworks. That level was over 2,800% above the limit set by the World Health Organization. (newyorkpost.com).  

With all the bad air effects (not even mentioning the noise trauma for veterans and pets), and our advanced state of technology, when will we have virtual firework shows where we can gather and that last for hours instead of minutes, similar to a virtual aurora borealis?  I suppose each of us values different aspects of our freedom, and enacting those freedoms are part of the celebration.  Personally, I like to celebrate my freedom to eat real meat hamburgers and hotdogs, even though they can be unhealthy for me and the environment.  To each his own…so I guess I won’t be holding my breath waiting for those virtual fireworks!

Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash