By Kaitlyn Eichelberger
Fourth of July: a holiday of grilling, swimming, parades — and fireworks. Behind the colorful explosions and American flags, though, can be greenhouse gases, water pollution and fearful wildlife.
About 428 million pounds of fireworks were set off in 2021, according to information from the American Pyrotechnics Association. Despite the large scale of firework use, the environmental repercussions of these festivities are not often discussed.
Fireworks, and by association, Fourth of July celebrations, impact the environment in a multitude of ways. Increases in air, water, and land pollution are recorded surrounding the holiday, alongside adverse effects on wild and domestic animals.
“Everything we do has an effect on every other living thing,” said Aileen Curfman, chair of the West Virginia Sierra Club, “and our holiday celebrations are no exception.”
In 2021, 97% of fireworks were used by consumers and the remaining 3% for organized displays. Individual fireworks may have a small effect, said Curfman, but together, they create a sizable impact.
The gases and heavy metals released by fireworks — including nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide; aluminum, manganese, and cadmium — are harmful to the environment and human health, according to some studies. Harvard University reports a five-time increase in respiratory irritation and exacerbation of pulmonary conditions following firework displays.
“These gases are well-known as greenhouse gases that contribute to the Earth’s warming,” said Curfman. “The trace metals can be toxic, and particulate matter contributes to poor air quality that leads to respiratory illness.”
These chemicals and metals can also spread to rivers and streams, affecting water quality and wildlife. Potentially toxic concentrations of perchlorate, a chemical used in fireworks and a known pollutant, can be found in the groundwater and surface water at Fourth of July celebration sites.
The byproducts of fireworks are also detected in the earth itself. In 2015, an Environmental Impact Statement reported high concentrations of metals, including copper and lead, in the soil at locations of previous firework displays.
The litter left behind after Fourth of July celebrations is perhaps the holiday’s most observable pollutant. Fuses, beverage cans, cardboard, and glow sticks are just a few types of debris abandoned after festivities.
Animals, both domestic and wild, suffer the effects of firework displays.
As described by the ASPCA, the sound of fireworks and other loud noises contribute to nearly one-in-five cases of missing pets. Animal shelters report an increase in stray pets after the holiday.
The loud noises and flashing lights of fireworks may cause wild animals to become disoriented and put themselves in harm’s way.
“I personally witnessed this at a fireworks display in a large grassy field surrounded by woods,” said Curfman. “A doe and fawn bolted out of the woods into the space between the audience and the pyrotechnic engineers. The automated display continued as the terrified mother and baby darted in one direction after another, while hundreds of helpless witnesses watched in horror.”
About 5,000 red-winged blackbirds died on New Year’s Eve in 2010 when illegal fireworks were set off in Arkansas. “The birds, startled from their roosts and disoriented in the darkness, collided with buildings, cars, and trees,” the National Audubon Society explains. In another example, a 2008 Fourth of July fireworks display in California caused seabirds to abandon their nests, leaving eggs unprotected and vulnerable to predators.
This Fourth of July, Curfman urges residents to consider ways to lessen their personal impact on the environment. A variety of alternative activities are available — some of them perhaps in your own backyard.
“If a nearby community offers a laser show, that’s a better option,” advised Curfman. “Even better, start your holiday watching a parade and attending a picnic. Spend your evening in a peaceful field watching a firefly show, and finish up with some stargazing.”
“America the Beautiful is stunning, just as she is. No pyrotechnics needed.”