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Volume 14, Issue 26 ~ June 29 - July 5, 2006

Got an Environmental Question? Send it to: EARTH TALK, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or submit your question at: Or e-mail us at:
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Colorful Fireworks Displays’ Dirty Secret

On Fourth of July, what goes up must come down

Do fireworks celebrations cause any significant pollution?

–David Hiebert, Scottdale, Penn.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the fireworks displays that go on around the U.S. every Fourth of July are still typically propelled by the ignition of gunpowder — a technological innovation that pre-dates the American Revolution itself. The fall-out from these exhibitions includes a variety of toxic pollutants that rain down on neighborhoods from coast to coast, often in violation of federal Clean Air Act standards.

Depending on the effect sought, fireworks produce smoke and dust that contain various heavy metals, sulfur-coal compounds and other noxious chemicals. Barium, for instance, is used to produce brilliant green colors in fireworks displays, despite being poisonous and radioactive. Copper compounds are used to produce blue colors, even though they contain dioxin, which has been linked to cancer. Cadmium, lithium, antimony, rubidium, strontium, lead and potassium nitrate are also commonly used to produce different effects, even though they can cause a host of respiratory and other health problems.

The chemicals and heavy metals used in fireworks also take their toll on the environment, sometimes contributing to water-supply contamination and even acid rain. Their use also deposits litter on the ground and into water bodies for miles around. Some U.S. states and local governments restrict the use of fireworks in accordance with guidelines set by the Clean Air Act. The American Pyrotechnics Association provides a free online directory of state laws across the U.S. regulating the use of fireworks.

Of course, fireworks displays are not limited to U.S. Independence Day celebrations. Fireworks use is increasing in popularity around the world, including in countries without strict air pollution standards. According to The Ecologist, millennium celebrations in 2000 caused environmental pollution worldwide, filling skies over populated areas with “carcinogenic sulphur compounds and airborne arsenic.”

The Walt Disney Company has pioneered new technology using environmentally benign compressed air instead of gunpowder to launch fireworks. Disney puts on hundreds of dazzling fireworks displays every year at its various resorts in the U.S. and Europe. The company has made the details of new patents it has filed for the technology available to the pyrotechnics industry at large with the hope that other companies will also green up their offerings.

While Disney’s technological breakthrough is no doubt a step in the right direction, many environmental and public safety advocates would rather see the Fourth of July and other holidays and events celebrated without the use of pyrotechnics. Parades and block parties are some obvious alternatives. Meanwhile, laser light shows can wow a crowd without the negative environmental side effects associated with fireworks.

For more information:

• American Pyrotechnics Association:

• Walt Disney Company:

Got an environmental question? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at or e-mail Read past columns at:

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