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Air Pollution Science

4th of July Firework Pollution: Let’s Talk About Holiday Traditions

Picture of Dr Gabriela Adler Katz
By Dr Gabriela Adler Katz on July, 3 2022
Firework pollution on 4th July Independence Day

Fireworks are used all around the world for festive occasions, but some events - like 4th July in the US - can experience a significant uptick due to religious or national celebrations. While fireworks are our prettiest type of air pollution, their zest and vibrancy don’t make them good for our health due to the toxins that are released from each firework that cause fire pollution.

1) Beautiful but Toxic: Firework Pollution During Popular Celebrations

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 the process of combustion. The result of this chemical reaction is smoke and gasses that contribute to fire pollution. So while many of us love to see the vibrant colors of real fireworks in the sky, there’s a potential health impact involved with these awe-inspiring displays.

 

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How Do Fireworks Pollute The Air?

When a firework explodes, it releases different types of fine particulate matter (including heavy metals and poisonous gasses) into the atmosphere. This can cause a rapid impact on the surrounding air quality. Studies have also shown that sparkler fireworks can induce the formation of ozone, also harmful to human health. 

An examination by Dyson found firework pollution impacts indoor air quality and thus can worsen indoor living conditions. 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: The Impact Of Toxins On Health

Many of us associate open log fires and wood-burning stoves with warm, romantic associations of the winter holiday season. But could these activities cause harmful air pollution that may impact our health? 

 

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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 due to the Particulate Matter they emit. 

Bonfire Night in the UK has been found to contaminate the air with 100 times more soot than usual, increasing the concentrations of compounds commonly found in fire pollution.

I have also personally studied the fire 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 2019 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, scientists set out to study the effects of simply preparing and cooking a typical Thanksgiving dinner on indoor air quality. 

 

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By 11 AM, 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 since we have discovered that 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.

2022: Safe Indoor & Outdoor Spaces Should Be on Everybody’s Priority List

Some US states have already banned fireworks to some degree: Arizona banned the use of airborne pyrotechnics, permitting mainly ground-level fireworks, while Massachusetts banned all fireworks for private residents and only permits scheduled professional displays. 

But let’s not forget the risks are not the same for everyone. Researchers found that vulnerable people and communities of color are disproportionately more exposed to smoke pollution from fireworks during traditional holiday celebrations like the 4th of July. Making the need for improved environmental monitoring tools vital for protecting the most impacted people at the most crucial times.

Making Outdoors & Indoors Safer With Environmental Intelligence 

Even in regions that won’t witness extravagant firework displays on the 4th of July or during other holiday celebrations, the threat of air pollution indoors and outdoors remains significant. In the coming years, we expect to see a drive towards integrated indoor air management systems and ventilation technologies that focus on reducing indoor air pollution. 

Rising concerns about harmful air pollution outdoors and indoors are likely to guide further air quality legislation to mitigate the impact of fire pollution on public health, and businesses should take note. Adopting smarter environmental monitoring tools and delivering personalized air quality insights at the individual level enables health and air quality brands to reach affected consumers at the most crucial times. 

By making the invisible environmental risks visible, brands can engage users more often with a complete view into their personal exposure and make them more likely to rely on their digital products by tailoring actionable insights to minimize and prevent daily health impacts, especially during higher-risk times.

 

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