4th of July Fireworks – Food for Thought

The 4th of July evokes thoughts of American flags, hot dogs, and backyard fireworks. Lately, I’ve been wondering what impact fireworks have on the environment and how our family tradition contributed.

The Chemistry of Fireworks video below explains the inner workings of fireworks. Viewers will learn long chemical names, what an oxidizer is, how an aerial shell works, and see examples of how several chemicals create color when lit on fire.

4th of July Fireworks at Our House

Humans seem to have a fascination with fire and blowing stuff up. Our family is no different.

Fireworks were prohibited where we lived when the kids were young. Every 4th of July, we took the day off from being law abiding citizens and set off fireworks in our backyard. We were careful and took precautions. Everyone had to wear shoes and eyeglasses or safety goggles. We put fireworks that shot stuff into the air in the middle of the grass away from any trees and staged a bucket of water and hose nearby. Thankfully, no one was injured, there were no fires, and we were never arrested.

Pile of Consumer Fireworks for SaleThe fireworks we enjoyed the most were interactive, like sparklers and hand-held fountains, or small items you lit and threw on the ground that emitted smoke, spun around, or made noise.

When smoke and fumes from burning fireworks stunk and clouded the air we moved around the yard to try to escape them and carried on with our activities. It didn’t occur to me back then that we were breathing in toxins and contributing pollution to the atmosphere.

When we moved to our current home, in a forest, the risk of fire was too great, so that put an end to our backyard fireworks activities.

Fireworks – Facts and Trivia

Surfing the web turned up some interesting fireworks facts and trivia. Fireworks are big business.

  • Since 1998, U.S. fireworks revenue has more than doubled, from $425,000,000 to $965,000,000 in 2012.
  • 4 states prohibit the sale and use of consumer fireworks: Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.
  • The 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty was celebrated by blowing up 22,000 aerial fireworks and 18,000 ground pieces.
  • The Walt Disney Company is the largest fireworks user in the U.S.
  • Of the 207,500,000 pounds of fireworks exploded in the U.S. in 2012, 89% were consumer fireworks, which represented 66% of the revenue.

Fireworks Injuries and Fires

A 2013 National Fire Protection Association Fireworks Report provides 2011 statistics for fireworks-related injuries and fires.

  • 9,600 people were treated for injuries in U.S. hospital emergency rooms.
  • 26% of injuries were to kids under age 15.
  • Sparklers caused the most injuries at 24%.
  • An estimated 17,800 reported fires were started by fireworks.

To put the figures in perspective, there were almost 38 million injury-related visits to hospital emergency rooms in 2010, and U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 1,389,500 fires in 2011. Although the risk of injury or fire is relatively small in the scheme of things, people should still take care when using fireworks.

Fireworks Food for Thought

Sir Isaac Newton’s famous phrase, “what goes up must come down”, seems pertinent to fireworks.

Although fireworks seem to disappear, their combustion produces greenhouse gases and particulate matter. Imagine the pollution produced by exploding 207,500,000 pounds of fireworks, that’s just for one year, and only in the U.S. Compared to power plants, cars, and cows, the pollution generated by fireworks is probably relatively small, but small things add up, especially over time.

4th of July Fireworks over National Mall, Washington, D.C. - Photo: Kevin H

4th of July fireworks have been a tradition since the founding of our nation. The statistics above show that consumer fireworks used at family picnics and backyard barbecues far outweigh public displays. Perhaps after a night of enjoying fireworks, one might consider purchasing carbon offsets, planting a tree, or buying a reusable water bottle. Hopefully, environmentally friendly fireworks will be created someday.

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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information, spark conversation, and convince people to take action to keep earth habitable for all. She believes our individual actions do matter—it all adds up.

2 thoughts on “4th of July Fireworks – Food for Thought”

  1. I have never ignited fireworks. They are unsafe and dangerous; they smell bad and they scare household pets. They are getting too expensive for cities to afford them. The local merchants where I live have collection jars out for citizens (and tourists) to contribute so that we can have a display every year.At least in my town they are on a barge on the river, with mostly sand dunes on either side, so the threat of fire in minimal but I think they should be banned altogether.

    1. Good point about pets. I bet wild animals don’t like fireworks either. Our local stores have fireworks show collection jars too. It seems there must be better ways to spend money donated by the community than blowing up stuff for 30 minutes once a year.

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