Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the founding of the United States. How will we do this? People have different ways but the most noticeable one is to make tons of noise and display lots of colors, using fireworks! Last night, two nights before the “big” night, people in the neighborhood I was visiting were blasting these incendiary devices for several hours. I guess people’s celebratory zeal was just too much to contain.

With all the talk about “protecting the environment” and “cleaning our air and water,” you might reasonably ask, “are fireworks a sound practice?” Given that the air blackens and smells horrible after a fireworks event, the answer to this simple question seems obvious. However, as usual in environmental thinking, the “devil is in the details.” So are fireworks safe and should we continue to use them as we do? (I decided to write this on the day before the “BIG” day, so as not to be too much of a “Danny Downer.”)

Apparently, fireworks consist of gun powder, heavy metals and other toxins, such as perchlorate (ref 1). Many of these are known to have carcinogenic impacts or interfere with human hormones (ref 2). What chemicals that are used change while “exploding” and take on new chemical forms and properties, many of which haven’t been carefully studied. And these chemicals stay in our air (more than 12 hours afterwards) eventually settling in the soil and ultimately ending up in our waterways. Not good, right?

Yet, maybe since we normally only use them on one BIG day, everything is fine; famously, “everything in moderation.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t work either. First of all, we are beginning to use them at many public events (baseball home runs often come with a firework display and colleges are using them at pre-graduation celebrations, and recall the pre-July 4th eruptions in our neighborhoods). Also, the chemicals used are often persistent meaning that they don’t easily break down into “safe” forms, so they remain toxic to our environment for years to come. Additionally, fireworks result in a huge numbers of hospital visits–in 2014, there were over 10,000 emergency room visits during the “month” of fireworks (ref 3). And lastly, you would be surprised how many thousands of cities, towns, and even neighborhoods have their own large firework displays. Last year, while driving around St. Louis looking for Ted Drewes’ amazing ice cream, I witnessed at least four such events going on at the same time.

Despite all of the above information (and books more of it at our cyber fingertips), I have a hard time thinking that we’ll make any headway stopping people from enjoying their city’s firework displays or blasting off a few bottle rockets in their backyards. (Though apparently there are 8,700+ people who have signed a petition to ban the private use of fireworks in New Zealand, ref 4 And, due to this years terrible drought many communities in Michigan are calling for reducing or cancelling displays (ref 5)). Sadly, this just represents one more thing that we know we shouldn’t do but we just can’t seem to do. This is particularly confusing when we realize that we are talking about something that is completely unnecessary to us and our collective health. As such, it represents another instance of the need to completely rethink how we function as a society. We need to have principles that we adhere to (such as, “we shall not poison our air and water without due cause and consideration”) and don’t deviate from just because its “fun” or “the thing we do.” Change is hard but challenges make life interesting, don’t they? Celebrate tomorrow, but do so with a small kernel of awkwardness and contemplation.

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