Fireworks facts: Could those beautiful displays have harmful consequences?


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Nothing celebrates the fourth of July more than fireworks. Watching the skies light up with dazzling colors and designs at a community show, or lighting your own in the backyard, are part of many childhood memories. But that beautiful spectacle could come at a cost to our environment and our health.

Fireworks would be pretty boring if they didn’t come in a variety of colors, but what goes into producing those colors can be potentially harmful to our health. For example, the metal strontium, which turns red when it burns, can be very dangerous at high levels of exposure. Radioactive strontium can cause bone marrow damage and anemia, while stable strontium can impair bone growth in children. Another commonly used chemical in fireworks is barium, which produces a green color when burned. When combined with other elements, they can cause stomach problems and muscle weakness at high exposure levels. Read more about other metals used to produce fireworks and their potential health risks here.

And it’s not just the metals used to make the colors that can be harmful. Potassium perchlorate, which is used to fuel the fireworks, has been shown to contaminate food and water supplies and has been linked to thyroid problems.


Fireworks of the future

While it is important to remember that attending a fireworks show this July 4 won’t likely expose you to a high enough level of toxins to be dangerous, many feel it’s better to err on the side of caution, and are taking steps to make fireworks safer. The Walt Disney Company, for example has created patent-pending technology that allows fireworks to be launched via compressed air instead of gunpowder. And U.S. Army researchers discovered that boron carbide could be used as an alternative to barium for producing green light.
It may be several years until fireworks become truly eco-friendly, but in the meantime, individuals and businesses must still comply with their states’ clean air laws.


How to stay safe (and eco-friendly) this year — whether you’re watching or running the show

If you plan on watching your local fireworks show this year but are concerned about exposure to toxins, a good rule of thumb is to keep your distance. Larger shows can be seen from miles away, so you don’t need to be in the thick of the action. Besides, being that close can’t be good for your hearing.

If you happen to live where buying fireworks is legal, and will  be putting on your own pyrotechnic display, heed these tips from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection:

  1. Look for fireworks with low (or no) perchlorate-containing fireworks.
  2. Dispose of unburned shell fragments and debris properly to keep perchlorate out of groundwater.
  3. Safely dispose of “duds” or “misfires.” Always follow manufacturers’ instructions.
  4. Light your fireworks away from public drinking water supplies to avoid possible contamination.

Of course, you could take a tip from the Daily Green and try some of these more eco-friendly alternatives to fireworks this holiday.