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Fireworks : The Hidden Toll


When Katy Perry's 2010 hit ‘Firework’ came out it actually “blew up” the internet (no pun intended). But just the way we still remember her absolute banger of a song till this date, fireworks tend to have the same long lasting effect on our environment. Fireworks are a common tradition in many cultures that are used to celebrate holidays and bring light with a bang (literally). Beautiful vibrate bursts exploding the sky tend to always please peoples eyes- but is it really worth it? For these exploding bright lights there is a huge ecological price that must be paid which takes a toll on the environment for many years.


What are Fireworks Made Of ?


Now not many know what fireworks are made of other than some sort of explosive material that allows the loud BANG sound when lit up. But these harmful ingredients are a true source of harm that severely affects the environment.


The most basic component that all fireworks have is black powder, also known as gunpowder. When black powder – which is made from a mixture of 75% potassium nitrate, 15% charcoal, and 10% sulfur – is placed inside a shell and ignited with a fuse, a loud, gaseous, and hot chemical reaction is created, essentially an explosion.


Later on, other elements were added to the gunpowder in specific ratios to achieve the targeted color. Trained experts designing and handling fireworks, known as pyrotechnicians, measure the correct amount of black powder, mineral elements, and other chemicals, and arrange these compounds under a specific order to provide the firework with a particular shape and colour. Another important aspect of fireworks is the sound which depends on the energetic formula put into a confined space. With nowhere else to go, the energetic formula explodes with a “boom”. Pyrotechnicians also calculate the altitude of each firework so that explosions happen at the right time and location.Who knew that there would be actual scientists behind these “beautiful bombs” carefully calculating their route and display. Now, that is certainly “bombastic”!


But, even though it may seem like the vibrate sparks of light disappear into thin air, that is certainly not the case. Unfortunately, these chemicals never leave the atmosphere.


USA


Fireworks Budget


One holiday other than Christmas that Americans do not skip out on their pockets is - Fourth of July or known as America’s Independence Day. According to the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA), US consumer fireworks retailers have reported that sales of rockets, missiles, roman candles, aerial spinners, parachutes, sparklers, poppers, fountains, jumping jacks and firecrackers should increase by about $100m this year over 2022. The figures suggest Americans are spending three times more than they did in 2012, when consumer sales stood at $645m, and sales could top $3.3bn by 2028.Sure thats a lot of money, but can you imagine the amount of pollution this must have created?


Fires After Fireworks?


These beautiful vibrate bombs in the sky come at a hefty price ofcource. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), fireworks started 12,264 known fires in the US in 2021, including 2,082 structure fires, 316 vehicle blazes and 9,866 others. The NFPA estimates that fireworks could start some 19,000 fires annually in the US. This could contribute to the poor air quality which brings up serious environmental concerns to America.


But we are seeing hope as many cities have changed their ways to a much more greener and economical option rather than using fireworks. Salt Lake City in Utah, the United States, has been substituting some of the city’s fireworks with lasers during the Fourth of July holiday to reduce environmental damage, and these lasers still have the same level of spectacle as fireworks.


India


Diwali- the Festival of Lights (locally known as Deepawali) is a celebration of peace and prosperity is one of the oldest holidays to be celebrated with fireworks. It was said in Nilamata Purana an ancient text that fireworks (bright lights) have to be illuminated on 14th/15th day of Kartika (Diwali) to show path to dead ancestors. But the celebrations are also sparking concerns about air pollution, including in the national capital, Delhi. During the five-day celebration of Diwali in India – the world-famous festival of lights – about 50,000 tons, or 100 million pounds, of fireworks explode, causing a toxic haze to cover cities in 2021. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic impact, festivities were held with restrictions or were cancelled altogether. However this year, with restrictions being lifted, people are celebrated the festival with gusto.


Despite governments in several states imposing partial or complete bans on firecrackers, thousands of people continued to light them, causing thick plumes of smoke that polluted the air.


Effect on Air Quality


Toxic hazes, also known as particle pollution, are created by particulate matter (PM), a combination of minuscule solid and liquid substances found in the air and considered the most hazardous air pollutant due to its ability to affect people’s lungs and heart, along with causing environmental damage. In the case of India, PM found in the country’s air increased up to 35 times on celebration days when fireworks were present compared to normal days.Specifically, the city of Delhi had the highest amount of particulate matter back in 2017 when fireworks were used during Diwali, with an hourly PM2.5 concentration of 900 μg/m3. This year fortunately the Delhi government has banned firecrackers to curb air pollution. Those lighting firecrackers could be jailed for up to six months and fined 200 rupees.


So the next time you think to light a cracker, please be mindful of the price you must pay (literally and also environmentally).


China


Fireworks were first invented in the Tang Dynasty around 650–700 CE in China by accidentally mixing chemicals together, creating an explosion. They are a symbol of happiness and luck for the Chinese and were used a lot during festivals to celebrate or commemorate.Traditionally, Chinese people believed that fireworks could ward off evil spirits and because of this, they are a major custom around public holidays, weddings, funerals, and other traditional ceremonies.As the legend goes, a monster called Nian would come out to eat villagers and destroy their houses on each New Year's Eve. The villagers discovered that burning dry bamboo to produce an explosive sound scared away the monster. Since then, it has become a tradition for Chinese New Year. The fireworks are wrapped in red paper which is known as a lucky colour for them which is left after the fireworks are set off for atleast a day to not “sweep off good luck”.


There are known for their intensive record breaking fireworks stunt that was largely popular across the world. In October 2007, a 20km (12.4 miles) string of firecrackers was lit between the Dayao town and Liuyan city in Hunan province. The feat was performed by one of China’s largest firework producers as a marketing stunt and the whole spectacle lasted 68 minutes and cost 800,000 RMB. So you can definitely tell that China takes their fireworks seriously for sure!


But recently for the sake of safety and environmental protection, many cities across China have imposed bans or restrictions on the use of fireworks and firecrackers during festivals and holidays. In these cases, it's illegal for individuals to set off fireworks and firecrackers. People can only set them off at designated venues.


Ecological Impact


Just as memorable as fireworks, they remain imprinted in your mind as well as the environment. Firework’s hidden toll on the environment leaves a severe impact that lasts for many generations. Fireworks burst into many beautiful sparks and then these sparks disappear right? No.


But where do they go? Modern fireworks are often made with perchlorates instead of potassium nitrate. Perchlorates are chemicals that feature a central chlorine atom bonded to four oxygen atoms. Although their effect on the environment is still a question mark, studies have shown that perchlorates are hazardous to the health of mammals, including humans. Data has shown that the presence of perchlorates may impact the health and fitness of certain animals by causing their thyroids to swell and threatening normal growth and development. Fireworks also create a tremendous amount of smoke that deteriorates the air quality which increases the amount of air pollution.


Animals are the true victims of these blasts. Fireworks may be a stunning experience for us but it is a truly terrifying one for them. It causes them to be shocked and frightened as these loud sounds of the blasts trigger as a “threat” or as “danger” to them causing them to leave their habitat. In an extreme case, hundreds of birds, primarily starlings, were found dead on the streets of Rome, Italy, after the 2021 New Year’s Eve firework event. What was the cause of these deaths? The International Organisation for the Protection of Animals (OIPA) believes it to be “related to a particularly loud display of firecrackers and fireworks.” It is their worst nightmare and it is completely out of their control.


Apart from the loud noises that cause disturbance, the debris or the aftermath of the fireworks littered across the ground providing opportunities for animals to accidentally ingest these hazardous materials and potentially leading to illnesses. And it doesn’t stop there. In areas already susceptible to wildfires or when conditions are hotter and drier, embers and sparks produced from ignited fireworks have a higher chance of creating a flame that can lead to a destructive wildfire, consequently harming wildlife and their habitats. Fireworks only lead to more wildfires as many already occur from climate change.


What else has not been spared by the danger of fireworks? Well, the land we live on ofcource. When fireworks burst into their colourful lights, chemical debris is left scattered across the ground. Perchlorate is one of them and it is often associated with contaminating soil and water. This chemical remains in the environment for long periods, easily absorbed by neighbouring flora. When it ends up in waterbodies, it can also affect fish development. Scientists with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Park Service studied perchlorate levels associated with fireworks found in soil, surface water, and groundwater at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the US. They found that the perchlorate levels were found in the soil and water where debris was found. The River of Thames in England had an enormous (and rather shocking) increase in microplastic content following the New Year’s Eve firework show.


Greener the Better


Obviously the best alternative to using fireworks - was to not use them at all (ironic isn’t it). But until countries take a stricter stance on the drastic severe consequences of fireworks- their ecological footprint on earth will not be reduced. But some countries have taken eye to the dire everlasting adverse effects of fireworks and plan to make a change.


The city of Zhengzhou in China enforced a policy prohibiting fireworks in 2016 so that air pollution could improve. Besides Zhengzhou, Beijing decided to ban the use of fireworks before the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics took place. This ban “helped China’s capital record its cleanest air for a Lunar New Year,” as reported by the National Post. Canadian cities located in the province of Alberta, like Banff and Canmore, replaced fireworks with special effects pyrotechnic displays, which are quieter and have a lower altitude, in order to protect wildlife. The town of Collecchio in Italy also switched from standard fireworks to silent fireworks to help reduce stress on local wild animals.Another better option is a drone display, similar to the one presented at the Opening Ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Laser spectacles can replace fireworks, too, as they reduce the risk of wildfires and do not increase air pollution.


It is incredible how countries are starting to look for eco friendly sustainable ways to still bring effect of the beautiful show of fireworks without the aftereffects by changing policies and switching to greener alternatives. To create a more greener planet for us and future generations, we must be mindful about the decisions we make for our entertainment which may require breaking traditions and barriers to ensure that we are making economical as well as eco-friendly choices for our surrounding life and people- even if that means to stop using these ravishing yet ravage fireworks.


Aarya Patil

Junior Correspondent

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