Dear EarthTalk: Do fireworks celebrations cause any significant pollution?
—David Hiebert, Scottdale, PA
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the fireworks displays that go on around the U.S. every Fourth of July are still typically propelled by the ignition of gunpowder—a technological innovation that pre-dates the American Revolution itself. And the fall-out from these exhibitions includes a variety of toxic pollution that rain down on neighborhoods from coast to coast, often in violation of federal Clean Air Act standards.
Fireworks Can Be Toxic to Humans
Depending on the effect sought, fireworks produce smoke and dust that contain various heavy metals, sulfur-coal compounds and other noxious chemicals. Barium, for instance, is used to produce brilliant green colors in fireworks displays, despite being poisonous and radioactive. Copper compounds are used to produce blue colors, even though they contain dioxin, which has been linked to cancer. Cadmium, lithium, antimony, rubidium, strontium, lead and potassium nitrate are also commonly used to produce different effects, even though they can cause a host of respiratory and other health problems.
Fireworks Contribute to Environmental Pollution
The chemicals and heavy metals used in fireworks also take their toll on the environment, sometimes contributing to water supply contamination and even acid rain. Their use also deposits physical litter on the ground and into water bodies for miles around. As such, some U.S. states and local governments restrict the use of fireworks in accordance with guidelines set by the Clean Air Act. The American Pyrotechnics Association provides a free online directory of state laws across the U.S. regulating the use of fireworks.