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Air Pollution Science

Sparklers & Fireworks: How Do Festive Traditions Impact Air Quality?

Picture of Dr Gabriela Adler Katz
By Dr Gabriela Adler Katz on July, 3 2021

Should we be paying more attention to the impact of holiday traditions on the air we breathe?

1) Beautiful but Toxic: Firework Pollution During Popular Celebrations

Fireworks are used all around the world for festive occasions. They are our prettiest type of pollution, but not at all good for our breathing. 

 

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What are Fireworks Made of?

Fireworks are made up of a number of different metal compounds responsible for producing the bright colors we love to look at. The metal salts and explosives used in fireworks undergo chemical changes by combining with an oxidizer in a process of combustion. The result of this chemical reaction is smoke and gases. 

What Happens when a Firework Goes Off?

When a firework explodes, it releases a combination of fine particulate matter (which includes heavy metals, as well as poisonous gases) into the atmosphere. This can cause a rapid impact on the surrounding air quality.  Studies have also shown that fireworks can create a ‘burst’ of ozone formation, also harmful to human health.

An examination by Dyson found firework pollution impacts indoor air quality too. The graph below highlights the spike in PM2.5 in Los Angeles following Independence Day. The blue line indicates the corresponding spike in indoor air quality following the Fourth of July:

 

 

In 2021, researchers at the University of California substantiated these findings, stating that PM2.5 concentrations on July 4 and 5 in 2020 were, on average, 50% higher than in 2019, likely due to the increased use of household-level fireworks during the pandemic lockdown.

2) Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire

For many, open log fires and wood-burning stoves come with warm, romantic associations of the winter holiday season. But could they be on their way out? 


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As stated by the EPA, exposure to wood smoke can irritate lungs, cause inflammation, affect the immune system and make us more prone to lung infections as a result of the Particulate Matter they emit. 

Bonfire Night in the UK has been found to contaminate the air with 100 times more soot than usual.

I have also personally studied the pollution impact of the annual Israeli nationwide wood-burning festive event called Lag b’omer - in this research, we found high concentrations of PAHs (toxic components that form during the burning of organic matter) that lingered for many hours - supporting again, the public health reality posed by these events. 

Coronavirus may accelerate efforts to phase open fires out. For example, the CDC believes people who have or are currently recovering from COVID-19 may be at increased risk from wood smoke exposure due to compromised heart and/or lung function. 

Following the bold announcement in 2020 by popular Alpine ski resort, Chamonix that they would be banning open fireplaces, the UK government informed residents they'll no longer be able to buy house coal or wet wood for wood burners or open fires from 2021.

3) Cooking Our Thanksgiving, Hanukkah & Christmas Dinners

In a homechem study, conducted in 2019,  scientists set out to study the effects of simply preparing and cooking a normal Thanksgiving dinner on indoor air quality. 

 

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By 11AM, having simply completed a number of menial basic tasks in the kitchen - activities like using the toaster, heating oil in a frying pan, and using the coffee machine, the concentration of fine-particulate matter indoors had risen to levels that would be deemed unhealthy by the EPA (!)

We'll likely see increased emphasis on keeping our indoor spaces safe now we’ve discovered Coronavirus can be spread via airborne particles indoors:

  • The World Health Organization has underlined the importance of indoor ventilation and fresh air in preventing virus transmission.

  • The German government announced a €500m investment towards improving ventilation systems in public buildings to help stop COVID-19 spread.

Safe Indoor & Outdoor Spaces Should Be on Everybody’s Resolution List

In the coming year, expect to see a drive towards integrated indoor air management systems and ventilation technologies that focus on preventing the spread of COVID-19 indoors and indoor air contamination. 

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