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Fireworks: a Fourth of July Dilemma

by Nathaniel Dela Cruz
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The Fourth of July fireworks are a beloved American tradition. But with growing opposition against fireworks because of the harm and danger to the environment, to plants and animals, and to humans, it surely begs the question: is it time to look at fireworks in a different light?

 

At the height of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the city government of Plano in Collin County, Texas had the right thing in mind: for the annual Fourth of July celebration, they would pick a spot to launch aerial fireworks where it is visible to everyone in the city. This way, they can help encourage the locals to continue social distancing: to stay at home or watch the fireworks from your vehicle.

It was a good plan, and entertaining the locals with display fireworks can help alleviate the stress and anxiety that have gripped the citizens, their lives and way of life upended unexpectedly by the spread of the lethal virus. But despite doing it for all the right reasons and good intentions, the fireworks show blew up in their faces. What should have been a night sky decorated with colorful lights ended up looking down on the grassfires on the ground below when something went wrong with the setup that deploys the aerial fireworks.  

This is not the first of its kind accident, and it will not be the last. Fireworks mishaps happened despite the presence of professionals in charge of detonating the fireworks. It happened in 2007 in Vienna, Virginia, injuring seven persons; in 2010 in Salt Lake City where 10 persons were injured, and in Palmyra, Pennsylvania where 11 were hurt. The same thing happened in 2012 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and in central Thailand where a fire resulting from a fireworks accident burned down 20 houses and killed 3 people; in Simi Valley in Los Angeles in 2013, injuring 28 persons; and in Roy City in Utah in 2014, injuring 10.

The public clamor against fireworks is mostly against illegal homemade fireworks and consumer fireworks lit illegally. If it is true that there is an expected shortage of fireworks from licensed manufacturers, this also encourages makers of illegal fireworks to flood the market with cheaper alternatives. And now that many cities are canceling the annual Independence Day fireworks show, citizens are preparing to do it themselves. If the city cancels, residents buy fireworks or make their own. A survey last year reveals that among the 40% planning to buy fireworks, 16% of which will do so because the local firework shows are canceled. 

This scenario, without a doubt, presents a potentially dangerous situation.

Apparently, so do fireworks shows handled by professionals. If professional stagings like the Plano City Fourth of July fireworks show became a public safety issue, it reinforces the argument that fireworks – whether from a professional or amateur – pose a real danger and should be replaced with a safer activity. 

Impact on humans

If someone is hurt because of fireworks, it means hospitalization and (depending on the gravity of the injury) possibly surgery and postoperative therapy. It means incurring medical bills and diverting money that could have been used for something else. A fireworks-related injury could be life-altering if you lose your finger(s), hand(s), limb(s), eyesight (especially since only 10% wear eye protection when using fireworks), or hearing. Chauncey Wilson, from Sherman, Texas, lost his eye from a Fourth of July firework accident. Last year, a male victim in Fort Worth suffered considerable injuries as a result of a fireworks mishap. Last January, a young man from San Antonio lost his hand because of a fireworks accident. According to a news report, separate Fourth of July fireworks accidents in 2015 sent two NFL players to the hospital. Jason Pierre-Paul (then defensive end for the New York Giants) had his index finger amputated, while C.J. Wilson (then Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive back) lost two fingers.

The worst that could happen is you die, or your family or friend dies. In Orange, Texas, Bryce Vincent proposed to his girlfriend in Crystal Beach. Minutes later, fireworks exploded and he was rushed to the hospital where he died three days later.

The alarming part is that injury or death can happen to anyone – to the person that set off the fireworks, to those watching fireworks, or even those who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 2003, two girls aged 8 and 15 went to watch a baseball game, not knowing they would end up in a hospital due to a fireworks accident in the coliseum. The 20-year-old Cesar Paez was visiting his cousin Alex Paez in Ontario, California when the cache of fireworks inside Alex’s house exploded. Both died because of the explosion.

The harm of fireworks is not limited to potential injury or death; fireworks also cause discomfort and act as a stress trigger. Parents do not like the sound of fireworks and firecrackers waking up their sleeping children (especially infants), or worse terrifying them, and the sound makes it difficult even for adults to sleep. The noise and bright lights can trigger Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD among military veterans or victims of gun violence

People store fireworks at home and when it explodes, it sets the house on fire, endangering the people inside it. It does not end there. There is lost property and damage to property that has to be paid, putting further strain on one’s financial disposition.

Impact on the environment

Fireworks affect the quality of the air we breathe. Fireworks emit large amounts of smoke, unused perchlorates, and metal by-products from the colorants. All of these are considered contaminants. Perchlorate oxidizer, a key ingredient in making fireworks, is toxic, as well as heavy metals that produce the colors we see in fireworks. This has been confirmed by Dr. David E. Chavez, a chemist from the High Explosives Science and Technology division of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Remnants of perchlorate that fall back down will contaminate the soil and water. To illustrate how potent fireworks are in terms of polluting bodies of water where they catch the fallout of exploded fireworks, a study was conducted using lake water in Oklahoma exposed to pyrotechnic fallout before and after a fireworks display. The results indicate that there is enough perchlorate content in the water to exceed the maximum allowable levels for drinking water, which means the water is toxic and unsafe for drinking. Moreover, it took between 20 to 80 days for the water to return to normal. Imagine the impact on animals (even humans) who drank unsafe and toxic lake water after a fireworks display.

Barium, which produces the green color in fireworks, can cause respiratory problems, and during a fireworks display, the barium in the air people breathe can contain 1,000 times the average barium levels. This was established after a study of barium in the air during the Diwali festival in India which is marked by lighting fireworks.

Remnants of perchlorate can contaminate plants that animals ranging for food eat. For humans, ingesting perchlorate can interfere with the production of thyroid hormone, making it dangerous especially for pregnant women because it can harm the fetus.

When there is a fireworks show, there is debris that needs to be cleaned up. 

Another way fireworks can harm the environment is by triggering a fire. The experience of Plano City is proof that fireworks can trigger grass fires. The Fourth of July celebration happens during a very dry and hot time of the year, resulting in drought and a low water supply. This is why activities that can potentially start fires like fireworks are discouraged. Recently, the governor of Utah has issued a ban on fireworks on state and unincorporated lands hoping to avoid fireworks and firecrackers-related fire now that there is a low supply of water because of the drought.

Impact on animals

Fireworks scare animals – pets and wildlife alike. They are under a lot of stress because of the noise created by fireworks. The cost of the 2010 New Year’s Eve celebration fireworks in Beebe, Arkansas is 5000 dead red-winged blackbirds that suffered acute physical trauma.

It is common to see dogs running in panic during a fireworks show. One dog ran until it dropped dead, and another dog died because it was hit by a car. Even wild animals flee too, and sometimes, they leave their nest and young ones behind in panic. Pets fleeing in a panic is the reason why there is an increase in lost or injured animals, especially days after July 4. There are other threats, like domestic or house pets encountering other animals in the wild and getting into a fight. Those who are safe at home are affected in other ways. The stress from hearing the loud noises can affect their appetite, making it difficult for them to eat for weeks. Animals in the wild may come across fireworks debris and if they eat these, it can make them sick, or worse, it can kill them. 

Complaints

In the US, laws and policies regarding fireworks vary from one state to another. Sometimes, laws are different from one county to another in the same state. A fireworks ban is already in effect in different US cities, counties, and states, and cities like Santa Clara have put in place fireworks restrictions so that fireworks are allowed in designated areas on July 4 and July 24 only. In Ogden, many residents are requesting a full fireworks ban. This is according to Ogden Chief Administrative Officer Mark Johnson. In North Carolina, a burning ban in effect in 26 counties means fireworks are prohibited. But judging from the loud noises and bright lights from pyrotechnics before, during, and even after the Independence Day celebration, it is apparent that the ban does not deter enthusiasts.

In many states and cities in the US, there are a growing number of complaints about fireworks lit days ahead of the Fourth of July celebration. These are not scheduled fireworks shows permitted by the local government. This is a blatant show of the worsening disregard for fireworks regulation which, historically, were not enforced strictly. 

People were complaining about fireworks last year in New York City. It was fun, but now, it is also annoying – in 2019, from June 1 to June 20, there were 27 fireworks complaints. A year later, there were 8,477 fireworks complaints in that same period. Everywhere in the US, there are increasing complaints about fireworks – Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Pennsylvania, to name a few. Mostly, it is because residents are reporting fireworks set off illegally, in places where a fireworks ban is in effect but enthusiasts refuse to be deterred.

Enforcing the ban and making citizens cooperate have been difficult. In Tacoma, for example, amateur enthusiasts continue to make and light up fireworks and firecrackers despite the ban in effect in this mid-sized urban port city, despite the fireworks-related concerns and injuries treated by first responders, prompting the Tacoma City Council to double the fines violators will have to pay if caught from $257 to $513. 

There are also complaints about wasting taxpayers’ money on fireworks. In a 2020 survey, two-thirds of Americans do not want the government using taxpayer’s money to pay for fireworks. Last year’s Mount Rushmore fireworks show in South Dakota cost $350,000 of taxpayers’ money meant to fund research and economic development. A resident of Orland Park, a village in Illinois, called out the mayor for wasting taxpayers’ money on fireworks.

Consider also that pro-fireworks citizens have something to complain too, more than their right to bear fireworks. There is also a flipside when looking at fireworks and its financial and economic implications. If a complete fireworks ban becomes a reality, this will affect individuals, families, and communities reliant and sustained by the fireworks industry. America’s fireworks culture is a billion-dollar industry; Fourth of July is when professional fireworks sell the most, accounting for 75% of the annual revenue according to the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA). Americans spent $1.3 billion on fireworks in 2019. This means jobs and wages for many people. A fireworks ban means American companies will take a hit with a dip in sales, which could result in cutting back the scale of operations and letting go of some employees so that businesses can stay afloat. Smaller businesses that can’t find enough customers outside the US will soon go bankrupt and will be forced to close shop. 

The future of fireworks

Is it time to do away with fireworks? It is a big decision Americans have to make. 

The introduction of Simon Werrett’s 2010 book Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History best explains why we’ve cultivated a deep appreciation for fireworks from a historical perspective: 

In a world without electric light, fire was a powerful medium, a source of light and heat whose divine and magical connotations were strong. Prometheus, who stole fire from heaven, presided over the human arts, by which men engaged with the natural world and turned nature to human ends.”

It is true. Watching fireworks stoke that unexplained primal bond with humans and anything incendiary. Lighting up fireworks every Fourth of July isn’t just to go wild and make noise, it is us celebrating as a community, enjoying something we all share equally. Maybe that is one of the reasons why John Adam wanted Americans to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence “with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations” – the last entry referring to fireworks (this was part of John Adams’ letter to his wife Abigail in July 1776). 

Breaking away from something beloved by many Americans is a major challenge. Watching fireworks on Independence Day is part of being an American. It is a very American experience. According to a Reader’s Digest article, “Fireworks are so synonymous with the Fourth of July that they feel as American as apple pie.” And with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic still felt by a lot of people, lighting up fireworks or watching fireworks on Independence Day is one way to blow off steam, perhaps to help improve one’s well-being after a period of boredom and seclusion.

Conclusion

Lighting celebratory fireworks, firecrackers, and sparklers is a tradition that goes back many, many generations ago. It is an expression of celebration many people look forward to even today. Many people have fond and unforgettable (even romantic) memories of watching fireworks light up the evening sky. It has even become part of the family ritual, to gather outside, wait in excited anticipation, and be in awe at the amazing display of lights. But on the opposite end of the spectrum are those who look forward to having a fireworks-free Fourth of July celebration. They are fun but harmful. It is not impossible, but it won’t be easy because Americans love fireworks. In a 2001 survey, 63% of the respondents are looking forward to watching fireworks. A 2015 survey indicates 77% want to watch fireworks. 

Is there a middle ground? Perhaps. It is hard not to include this possibility, not when eco-friendly and noiseless fireworks are a reality now. Collechio, a town in Italy, required the use of silent fireworks. Setti Fireworks, which specializes in making silent fireworks, made sure Collechio achieved its vision of enjoying fireworks minus the negative effect of loud noises. Maybe Americans will find this as an acceptable middle ground. Or maybe they will explore other options like light shows or even drones.  In Edinburgh, Scotland, for example, the traditional fireworks show to celebrate New Year’s Eve has been replaced with a light show using drones.

What do you think?

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