Fireworks on the 4th of July are as all-American as baseball and apple pie. However, conventional fireworks are not friendly to the environment or our health. The burning of the metal salts in fireworks releases ultraviolet light which increases ozone pollution, according to a study by the Jawaharlal Nehru University in India. The study monitored ozone levels during an annual festival in Delhi. During the festival ozone ozone pollution increased and did not decrease until 2:30 am the next morning.
One of the main ingredients in fireworks is a perchlorate salt, and combined with the heavy metals that create the color, a toxic compound is formed. According to Dr. David Chavez, a chemist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, “They can get aerosolized and breathed in, or they go into the soil and water.”
A study of the water in a lake in Ada, Oklahoma after annual fireworks displays found perchlorate in the water increased greatly after, and took between 20 and 80 days to return to normal levels.
In some areas of the U.S. a surge in ozone pollution for one evening may not be a big deal, but in the San Joaquin Valley of California where I live, pollution is already a problem. In fact, the San Joaquin Valley has one of the worst air basins in the country. According to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, fireworks “can temporarily increase air pollution.” The Air Pollution Control District usually sees an increase in particulate pollution between 9 to 10 p.m., the “prime time for fireworks displays.”
Does this mean that fireworks displays on the 4th of July should be scrapped in areas like the San Joaquin Valley? Thankfully, the answer is no. There are new “eco-friendly” fireworks. According to Physorg, a science news website, researchers have developed fireworks that “replace percholate with nitrogen-rich materials or nitrocellulose that burn cleaner and produce less smoke.”
A former Los Alamos explosives chemist, Mike Hiskey co-founded DMD Systems which produces perchlorate-free fireworks. The fireworks also contain about one-tenth the amount of barium that conventional fireworks do.
Walt Disney Imagineering pioneered a new technology that uses compressed air to lift fireworks, which greatly reduces the amount of smoke and noise. In 2004, the new fireworks debuted at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California. The company made its patent for the fireworks available to the pyrotechnics industry.
“It is commendable for Disney to share this breakthrough with others,” said Julie Heckman, Executive Director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. “This environmentally friendly air launch technology demonstrates how Disney continues to set a high standard in the fireworks industry.”
Physorg sees the biggest challenge to greener fireworks is “making them cost-competitive” with the conventional ones. Fireworks manufacturers “have little incentive” to develop greener products because of the lack of federal regulations to limiting releases of perchlorate from pyrotechnics.