Our Prettiest Pollutant

Our Prettiest Pollutant

As one of the most eye-catching Independence Day celebrations, Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks in New York City has been the largest display across the country since the Millennial Celebration in 2000, with more than 75,000 shells and effects. The show lasted for 25 minutes across several locations on Manhattan’s East River. Since 1976, Macy’s Fireworks have grown to become the nation’s most well-known Independence Day celebration. This year, an estimated 3 million live spectators and 12 million television viewers nationwide were amazed by the jaw-dropping display of color, shape, light, and sound. From 40,000 pyrotechnic shells in 2015, 52,000 in 2016, to 60,000 shells in 2017, Macy’s has been beating its own record every year not only to bring the best and biggest fireworks display to audiences but also to show the whole world how much we love America.

In 1777, on the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia marked the day with a fireworks celebration, beginning a tradition that has grown over the last 200 years. From small towns to big cities, citizens have created their own Independence Day celebrations according to their culture and their place in history. In 2016, a report stated that an estimated 14,000 displays throughout the country took place, not to mention the number of fireworks involved in each display. However, as the fireworks lit up the sky and moved hundreds of thousands of audiences, they also spiked air pollution so sharply it became dangerous for anyone to breathe at the scene. In big cities like New York City and Los Angeles, the Air Quality Index (AQI), defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, shows a spike around July 4th and 5th, where the air quality is “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” Thick smogs can be seen flowing into the city as the fireworks go off, blocking views and causing breathing difficulties. With the great beauty of fireworks shows comes great environmental concern – despite the fun and fantasy of fireworks, these shows of celebration can cause serious air pollution.

Diwali, a five-day Hindu festival in many regions of India, is also celebrated with an insurmountable number of fireworks displays. It is celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Newar Buddhists, in praise of the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair. During the celebration, people set off fireworks and burst crackers on the street, symbolic of chasing away evil spirits. However, one report has stated air pollution in Delhi raised to hazardous levels during the fireworks show, hitting 40 times the limit recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). The guidelines from WHO suggest a limit of 50 micrograms per cubic meter, but the levels of PM10 particulates in Delhi hit 2,000 per cubic meter during the celebration. High accumulations of particulates produced by fireworks float in the air after the celebration for around 24 hours – the excessive amount of crackers being burst becomes the main concern. According to a report on global air quality by the Health Effects Institute, air pollution led to the deaths of an estimated 1.1 million people in India in 2015, with around 65,000 babies. In order to reduce exposure to health risks, the Supreme Court of India banned the sale of fireworks on October 9th, 2017, but not their use. At present, the government’s policy is reactive, rather than proactive.

But one may ask – why do fireworks cause such air pollution?
“Fireworks consist of about 75 percent potassium nitrate, 15 percent charcoal and 10 percent sulfur,” said Günter Klein-Sommer, a chemist, and pyrotechnist. In addition, other metallic compounds might be added in order to produce various sparkling colors, including strontium (red), aluminum (white), copper (blue), barium (green), and rubidium (purple). However, the key elements that incite serious health issues are the particulate matter. Particulate matter (PM) is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. These particles come in many sizes and shapes and can be made up of hundreds of different chemicals. While some are emitted directly from a source, others form in the atmosphere as a result of complex reactions of chemicals. PM usually includes PM10 and PM2.5 – both are inhalable particles. The latter especially has diameters of 2.5 micrometers, which can penetrate deep in the lungs and trigger heart attacks, strokes and have other adverse health effects. Fireworks pollution causes greater risks compared to typical smog because it has higher concentrations of toxic metals and PM.


A website called AirNow provides daily information about air quality. Developed collectively by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, and tribal, state, and local agencies, the AirNow system provides the public with easy access to the air quality index (AQI) across the country. The AQI is a system for reporting daily air quality. It focuses on health effects people may experience after breathing polluted air. EPA calculates the AQI for five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Ground-level ozone and airborne particles are the two pollutants that pose the greatest threat to human health in the United States. For example, the image below shows the highest amount of AQI on July 4th, with PM2.5 of 79 and ground-level ozone of 90, which falls in the “moderate” level of health concern. Specific colors are assigned to different AQI categories, making it easier for people to understand the conditions.

Another company, AirVisual, visualizes air pollution using a spectrum of colors, similar to the U.S. AQI, but on a global scale. With the consideration of wind speed and its direction, users can see the air movement. The company also produces AirVisual Pro, a machine that can monitor PM2.5 and carbon dioxide both indoors and outdoors, and alert users when the air quality is dangerous to breathe. Data are gathered from each of the machines, calculating companies and organizations around the world have dedicated themselves to raise the awareness of air pollution – no matter it’s caused by fireworks or fossil fuel combustions.

Indeed, air pollution has become a major concern for people around the world. For the past few decades, large amounts of coal have been used to power factories and heat up homes in China, which directly increases the pollution levels in the air. This leads to large amounts of smokey fog or smog, making it really difficult for people to safely breathe and see. Lots of children can be seen wearing anti-pollution face masks on their way to school or even have to stay indoors. While the recommended amount of pollutants is 10 micrograms per cubic meter, in China, especially in its capital city Beijing, recent years have regularly seen levels higher than 400 micrograms. Although fireworks were first invented in China thousands of years ago, since November 1st, 2017, Beijing, along with 400 other towns and cities, has banned the use of fireworks. Authorities believed the new regulation would clamp down safety and pollution concerns, as the high levels of pollution possibly came from the chemicals used in fireworks. While Chinatown in New York City was celebrating Lunar Chinese New Year with an amazing fireworks show in 2018, over 400 towns and cities in China were celebrating “in silence.”

What is some alternative way to celebrate holidays instead of fireworks?
One alternative that has been around for quite some time is the laser light show. Instead of exposing the audiences to the danger of wildfire and air pollution, laser display is a much safer and just as brilliant a way to celebrate. Advanced technology such as drones is also used during the show to bring more fun and amusement to the spectators. As early as in 2002, dry areas that are prone to wildfire – for example Colorado or Arizona – replaced fireworks with laser display to celebrate Fourth of July. Usually, two types of performances are included in the show – aerial beam, where the laser light is seen in mid-air, and graphic, where the laser is projected onto a screen, wall or other surfaces. Although different than a traditional fireworks show, people have been giving pretty good feedback, especially in those areas where fireworks are banned due to risks of wildfire and serious air pollution.

Green fireworks, as the name implies, are a “greener” alternative to standard fireworks. A group of researchers working for the U.S. Army were originally concerned with reducing the environmental pollution caused by the Army’s signal flares. However, their invention is also likely to come to the rescue in the environmental battle over fireworks. By replacing the toxic components in current fireworks with the right mixture of strontium nitrate, potassium periodate or sodium periodate, fireworks still produce the same explosion with even brighter flash plumes. Additionally, Disney filed the patent in January, 1992 for their special fireworks display system. The purpose of the system would be to launch the fireworks in such a way that the particles would become small flakes that are less harmful to the environment. Since 1994, the fireworks display system remains the basis of the show. Both restrictions and improvements on fireworks usage have been made in the past few decades in the effort to reduce air pollution.

Air pollution is still a huge problem around the world today – not only due to fireworks, but also other causes, like the burning of fossil fuels. Hopefully, in the future, we can celebrate the Fourth of July, or any other holiday without such a negative impact on human bodies and the environment. Don’t pursue short-term enjoyment and neglect their side effects in the future.


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