Bright Lights, Dark Cloud: Examining the Environmental Effects of Fireworks

Part 1: Pittsburgh’s Environmental Record–and “The Smoky City’s”
Love of Fireworks

On Saturday, October 4, 2008, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania celebrated its 250th birthday in a climax of a fireworks display, thirty minutes long and launched from 17 different locations around the city, including barges floating on Pittsburgh’s three rivers and off of downtown skyscrapers.

Pittsburgh loves its fireworks.

I’ve noticed that after every Pirates game, whether the outcome is good or bad, there are fireworks.Β  Steelers games.Β  Community events.Β  And now, Pittsburgh’s 250th birthday warrants the biggest blast of them all.Β  How many folks out there have actually watched fireworks for thirty straight minutes?Β  Since Pittsburgh’s 250th birthday celebration, I have.Β  Your neck hurts!

In the official press release about the event from Zambelli Internationale, Pittsburgh set a record of 17 firework launch positions, “the largest in the country.”Β  The site also describes a formidable array of effort: 40 professional pyrotechnicians and nearly 40,000 fireworks went into Pittsburgh’s big day.

Personally, while I was watching the spectacular displays, after a while I stopped being awed by the visual splendor and noticed my mind wandering to this thought: “what exactly is in those thick black clouds of firework byproduct eclipsing downtown?”

Pittsburgh is infamous for being a grimy, sooty steel manufacturing city.Β  Few people seem to be aware that in the past 20 years, Pittsburgh has really cleaned up its act.Β  People who still have outdated notions about the city of Pittsburgh be astonished to learn that it was ranked 2007’s “Most Liveable City” in the 25th Anniversary Edition of Rand McNally’s “Places Rated” Almanac.Β  While the city’s population continues to diminish without the steel trade, I am one of many young people who have flocked to beautiful and vibrant Pittsburgh for its gorgeous rivers and parks, its small homey scale, and its active political and artistic scene.Β  One of my friends, a world traveller, adores Pittsburgh and calls it “the Paris of Appalachia.”

But this positive public ranking was soon sullied by some facts.Β  The following year (2008), Pittsburgh is rated #1 worst city in the nation for air quality by the American Lung Association.Β  Clouding those lovely vistas and tree-lined hills is a potent aura of particulates–mostly due to our region’s dangerous love affair with coke and coal production.Β  Because Pittsburgh is thick with coal, coal-burning power plants power the majority of the area’s electricity.Β  It goes without saying that particulate contamination in the air we breathe can lead to a whole slew of health effects, from asthma to cancer and premature death.

And air quality pollution issues is just the beginning–Pittsburgh is coping with heavily contaminated rivers, resulting in an alarming rate of hermaphroditic fish in the Monongahela River.Β  An excerpt from this article by Softpedia:

“The Monongahela River area is the area in Pittsburgh that was the site of most of the steel production over the last 100 years. That area is still an industrial beehive.” said Volz. The broadest contamination was observed in the waters of the sewer outflows from Pittsburgh; 3 out of 4 catfish captured here boomed the breast cancer cells.

Looks like Pittsburgh’s squeaky clean image is a little grimy after all.Β  (This, to me, is only further evidence that environmental wounds made during a brief, excited peak of industrial activity will not be quickly and easily swept away by time.)

Stay tuned for Part 2:Do Fireworks Pose Significant Environmental Danger?

photo credit: Ikluft under a GNU Free Documentation License; second image, public domain

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