The American practice of lighting fireworks on the 4th of July dates back to Philadelphia’s first Independence Day celebration in 1777. Today, it’s a beloved tradition that seems nearly impossible to replace.
But with concerns about air quality, wildfires and supply chains, some cities are doing just that.
This year, Salt Lake City is replacing its fireworks with synchronized dancing drone shows to avoid worsening air quality and sparking more wildfires. Boulder, Colorado, is also switching to drones, and Minneapolis is going with lasers, simply because these technologies have been easier to find than fireworks in recent years.
And as wildfire smoke from Canada blanketed much of the United States again last week, New York City officials debated whether to set off fireworks on the 4th but, Monday evening, they had not canceled them.
Across the border, Montreal canceled July 1 Canada Day fireworks, citing poor air quality from more than 100 wildfires burning across Quebec.
“They’re definitely going to make these existing sources of air pollution worse,” said Grace Tee Lewis, an epidemiologist at the Environmental Defense Fund who specializes in air pollution and public health.
Fireworks cause a spike in a form of air pollution called particulate matter, the same type of pollution that is elevated by wildfire smoke. Although there is not much research on the risks of fireworks specifically, particles less than 2.5 microns wide (about one-30th the width of a human hair) have been known to enter people’s lungs and bloodstream and cause respiratory problems and inflammation. Children, the elderly and people with health conditions like asthma and chronic heart disease should take special care, Dr Tee Lewis said.
“Watch it from afar,” she recommended. “The closer you are, the more fine particles you will be exposed to.”
Dr Tee Lewis added that since the spread of coronavirus, more people may be more vulnerable to air pollution, particularly those with long-term Covid or heart complications from their infections. For those determined to get their pyrotechnic fix, wearing the same N95 face masks that protect against the virus is one way to protect themselves from smoke and air pollution, she said.
On July 4 and 5, fine particulate levels across the country increase by an average of 42%, according to a 2015 study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Along with the fireworks party, particulate pollution can increase by up to 370%.
These levels often exceed what is allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency for day-to-day outdoor air quality, but local, state and tribal governments are generally allowed to report one-time events such as fireworks. , as well as forest fires, as “exceptional events”. and avoid officially violating national aviation standards.
Other countries see similar spikes in air pollution around their own major holidays, said Dian Seidel, author of the 2015 study and retired NOAA climatologist.
Background air pollution from wildfire smoke is definitely something cities need to consider when planning fireworks or alternative celebrations like drone shows, Dr. Seidel said. “Maybe there are ways to not have a party, but still have something pretty in the sky to look at, and not cause a lot of pollution,” he said. she declared.
In addition to air pollution, fireworks carry other risks. Dogs and other pets are known to hate the 4th of July, and many humane societies and animal shelters are bracing for an influx of lost or runaway animals after the holidays. Fireworks also pose problems for wild animals. A 2022 study of wild geese in Europe found that during crucial stops in their long migrations, many birds abandoned their roosting sites on New Year’s Eve.
In 2022, Americans suffered an estimated 10,200 fireworks-related injuries and 11 reported deaths, according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. Many injuries were caused by small firecrackers and candles lit by people at home, not at large public or commercial performances.
But the adrenaline rush of sparks, whistles and booms, and a bit of danger, socially acceptable for a day, is exactly why so many people love fireworks. Even Dr Tee Lewis said his children set off small fireworks on July 4 at their grandparents’ house, where they are legally permitted.
She and Dr. Seidel don’t want to stop the holiday festivities. They simply urge caution and invite people to consider alternatives.
Ultimately, holiday fireworks only result in a few days of particularly noticeable air pollution. Across the country and around the world, communities daily or seasonally face less noticeable but still unhealthy air due to factors such as vehicle traffic, industrial pollution and wildfires.
This year, the EPA proposed to strengthen its air quality standard for fine particles to better protect public health, but said it would still pay special attention to “exceptional events”.