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Published on October 27th, 2008 | by carolinesavery

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Bright Lights and Big Bangs: The Chemical Composition of Fireworks


Part 2: Do Fireworks Pose Significant Environmental Danger?

Pittsburgh, PA.  A place known for its peoples’ good ol’ blue collar fervor, our enthusiasm for everything from our football team (STEELERS!!) to our beer (Iron City) to our hoagies (Primanti’s, brother!).  We are thus naturally inclined to encourage bombastic public demonstrations of our affection–in this case, in celebrating ourselves!

I viewed the record-setting Pittsburgh 250 fireworks display from a wonderful vantage point on the North Shore, as I cheered my city on from the balcony of McFadden’s with a massive group of Couchsurfers visiting Pittsburgh for their regional meet-up weekend.  All the while I was marvelling at the bright splashes and the thundering bursts–thirty minutes in duration!–the thought kept flitting across my mind: “what exactly is IN that massive smoke cloud pooling across the river?”

The Composition of Fireworks, a page compiled by Reema Gondhia at Imperial College in London, gives you the factual rundown of the makeup of fireworks.  A firework’s chemical arrangement, however ingeniously designed to manifest our titillating visual delights, provides some unsettling names–chemicals with long rap sheets from research institutions indicating their threat to living systems.  Read on for some distrubing examples.

Chlorates and Perchlorates.  Used in fireworks as oxidizing agents, they are cited as dangerous to human health in dust form by the Encyclopedia of Occupational Health, which says their effects include “sore throat… dizziness… they are an irritant to skin, eyes, and mucous membranes… they can cause haemolytic anemia… and liver and kidney injuries.”

Sulfur.  Reacts with oxygen during a firework explosion to form sulfur dioxide (SO2).  Sulfur dioxide is dangerous to human health when in the air, and can result in severe neurological and brain damage, vascular damage, and internal enzyme damage in living things, according to this website.

Unnatural Strontium chemical bonds (used to make the color red in a firework) can be dangerous to human health, especially in water-soluble form.  They have the potential to contaminate waterways and food, as well as the air.

Fireworks create dust clouds in Duisburg-Ruhrort, GermanyWhile most of the components of fireworks may be harmless before ignition, consider their effects when dispersed indiscriminately into a small area in a post-explosion gaseous form.  As if Pittsburgh wasn’t particulate-polluted enough!  Some food for thought the next time you are taking in a public fireworks display.

As citizens of a country which traditionally thrills to fireworks, yet as concerned people who desire a better, safer future for the next generations, isn’t there some way we could protest firework displays for their insensible hazards?  Are there any alternatives we could propose that are just as thrilling, but not as threatening?  If so, then a community celebration of heritage and tradition need not be an environmental slap-in-the-face, but instead, may be enjoyed by all.  Even… by the fish.

photo credit: Neurovelho under a GNU Free Documentation License; Raimond Spekking under a GNU Free Documentation License

If you liked this article, check out its precursor:  Part One: Pittsburgh’s Environmental Record and “The Smoky City’s” Love of Fireworks



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2 Responses to Bright Lights and Big Bangs: The Chemical Composition of Fireworks

  1. Corinne says:

    i had a feeling fireworks were more than just pretty… every time the 4th of july rolls around and the big fireworks display goes down i can’t help but wonder what that is doing to what i am breathing. clearly nothing good. imagine how detrimental the olympics opening & closing ceremonies’ fireworks were in all their hugeness..

  2. Pamela J. Betz-Baron says:

    Damn. I love fireworks. There has got to be a better way to make them, though. It just won’t be as inexpensive.

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