The iconic fireworks displays of the Fourth of July celebrations are just around the corner. Fireworks have been associated with the Fourth of July since the independence of the colonies in 1777. Philadelphia, as the nation’s capital in 1777, was the first city to celebrate the Fourth of July, which was declared an official national holiday in 1941.
With water quality always a concern, I wondered what impact fireworks are having on the surrounding environment. A quick web search showed several nearby states and lake associations expressing concerns. New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services produced a fact sheet in 2018 indicating growing concerns about the use of fireworks around New Hampshire’s lakes, which can be found at des.nh.gov/organization/commissioner/pip/factsheets/bb/documents/bb-60.pdf.
Fireworks contain many different elements. The New Hampshire fact sheet lists 11 of them with potential toxic effects, from the fallout of dust and fumes that range from being poisonous to radioactive to bioaccumulators to carcinogens. Surprisingly, phosphorus was not listed because manufacturers have reduced phosphorus to trace amounts.
The U.S. Geological Survey, in May of 2016, released its finding that past fireworks displays were probably the cause of increased amounts of perchlorate in ground and surface waters within Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Perchlorate is used to set off the fireworks and, at high levels in drinking water, can interfere with the function of the thyroid gland. Fortunately, tests of drinking water at Mount Rushmore showed that it meets current regulations for safety.
Other pollution concerns from fireworks include the ground litter. There is also documentation of the temporary degradation of air quality from the smoke and dust, which may contain heavy metals. This fine particulate matter can have real health implications for those with asthma and respiratory problems. There is also the noise pollution component. Fireworks are loud; they can exceed 140 decibels (hearing damage can occur at 85 decibels and above), plus the noise can travel great distances.
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Noise pollution also has an impact on animals. Animals generally have better and more sensitive hearing than humans, and loud noises can actually cause them pain. Dogs and cats generally try to hide from the noise, while small animals like guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits and even caged birds are frightened by fireworks. Seek advice now from your veterinarian on how to protect your pets. Livestock on farms and even wildlife also experience stress and fear when exposed to fireworks. Research at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada showed that laying hens had low egg production the day after a nearby fireworks show, and that some eggs were malformed.
Some communities are requiring companies that produce a fireworks show to register in advance. This allows the community to know and keep track of what is happening in their watershed. Other communities have cancelled displays after being made aware of potential impacts on nearby wildlife. However, these steps do not take into account the amount of fireworks that are discharged by unlicensed people using them on their private property.
There are alternatives to the use of fireworks for celebratory reasons. Rethink neighborhood celebrations to include parades, concerts or block parties. Plus, laser light shows are becoming increasingly popular, and don't have the negative environmental fallout associated with fireworks.
As we gather to celebrate the Fourth of July, bonfires are often included as part of the celebration. The state Department of Environmental Conservation reminds us that there are specific environmental regulations for open fires. Permissible fuel types are limited to untreated (clean) wood, wood generated on-site or firewood. Prohibited materials include chemically treated wood (including painted and stained wood), plastics and synthetic materials. More information on the state’s open burning prohibitions can be found at dec.ny.gov/chemical/58519.html.
The byproduct of burning wood is wood ash, which has been and can be used as an organic fertilizer.
To reduce the chance of any wood ash entering waters, all fire pits and bonfire locations should be cleaned up once the ash has cooled and placed where it can be used by landscape plants, or properly disposed of away from any water body or water course, including road ditches.
I enjoy a good fireworks show as much as the next person, and bonfires create an instant gathering place to enjoy a late summer’s evening. This summer, take time to consider what you are doing, both on the land and in the air, to minimize any potential impacts on the quality of the air, land and water. Please have a happy and safe Fourth of July.