Environment

Toxins In Fireworks End Up In Our Air

OPB | July 2, 2008 9:41 p.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:15 a.m. | Portland, OR

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By Pete Springer

When fireworks are lit off, the mix of propellants, oxidizers, and coloring agents creates each brilliant burst.  But as Pete Springer reports, that same mix is not only visually fun to look at, but can be harmful as well.


Elson Strahn is the president of the Vancouver Trust, the organization that puts on the largest fireworks show west of the Mississippi.

The show takes six months to coordinate to music and the actual fireworks display is run completely by computers.

Elson Strahn: “Much more sophisticated than the old days when you’d have a group of folks standing around lighting fuses.  It’s a very highly technical pyrotechnic exercise.”

The half-hour fireworks show literally burns through tons of explosives and chemicals. 

One of those chemicals is perchlorate.  It’s an oxidizer used in fireworks, rocket fuel, and even airbags. 

Perchlorate has also been identified as a health hazard — it can inhibit the thyroid's ability to take up iodine and can reduce the production of thyroid hormone. 

The U.S. Air Force is cleaning up scores of perchlorate contaminated bases, and now there is some concern this perchlorate may be getting into soil and water near firework displays.

For example, a Massachusetts study did find perchlorate in drinking water wells near firework displays.

The fireworks link to water pollution has not been tested or studied locally. 

But Disneyland in Anaheim, California now uses air-propelled rockets for the theme park's nightly fireworks display.

In terms of health effects on humans, the smoke from fireworks may be the most obvious concern.  But officials aren’t too worried about the long-term effects on human health.

Dr. David Jacoby is head of the pulmonary division at OHSU in Portland.

David Jacoby: “When you think about it, you’re really exposed to it for a very short period of time.  Typically they’re outdoors, so the smoke comes through and gets blown away.  It’s not even going to be as much exposure as bad air days where it really goes on all day.”

In Portland, those bad air days are declared when the Department of Environmental Quality measures heavy air pollution at automated monitoring stations around the metro area. 

The monitoring stations measure particulates, ozone and carbon monoxide, says William Knight, a DEQ spokesman.

William Knight: “They’re taking readings and giving us a number every hour and one thing we’ve noticed on July 4th is that when people are shooting the fireworks that evening, there is a spike in our particulate readings.”

It’s not just the commercial firework displays dumping particulates into the air either.  Knight says there are plenty of backyard fireworks adding to the pollution as well.

William Knight: “It’s sort of like everybody getting home and cranking up the fireplace and woodstove during an inversion event.  You can really see a haze develop quickly.”

Knight says in the Portland-area, the elevated levels of particulates from fireworks have never violated federal or state air quality standards. 

But the DEQ does not yet monitor for toxic chemicals in the air.  That ability will be added to air quality monitoring stations later this year. 

Another environmental concern over fireworks is the plastics that make up consumer fireworks — most of that material can’t be recycled.

Peter Spendelow: “It’s gonna be contaminated, it’s gonna be charred, it’s gonna possibly have residue of chemicals.”

Peter Spendelow is a policy analyst for the DEQ.  He says spent fireworks are pretty much considered solid waste.

Peter Spendelow: “Fireworks after they’re shot off are usually pretty dirty.  I just wouldn’t try and recycle that.  The packaging probably be okay depending on the packaging.”

Recycling and breathing issues aside, the biggest health concern over fireworks pretty much remains the same year after year, says Dr. David Jacoby at OHSU.

David Jacoby: “You know people playing with fireworks themselves are probably more likely to blow their fingers off than they are to get into trouble with their breathing.”

And many of those backyard displays are also illegal.

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