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Fireworks: Breathtaking ... and Deadly

This Fourth of July, ask yourself: Is 15 minutes of pyrotechnic entertainment worth poisoning the earth?
 
 
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In the final December of the 20th century, environmentalists in Sweden, Germany and Australia issued a Global Call for Action, asking the world community to take a stand against 21st century air pollution by halting the globe-circling fireworks displays planned to celebrate the dawn of the year 2000.

"Wouldn't it be nice to be able to greet the new millennium in a dignified, responsible and environmentally friendly way?" the Sweden-based Heavy Metal Bulletin asked. "Is this type of celebration really a good habit to carry into the New Millennium?"

Air-bursting shells -- with picturesque names like chrysanthemum, peony, willow, saturn, strobe, and salute -- are lovely to watch but, when it comes to skyrockets, every silver lining has a cloud. As the Bulletin points out, heavy metal fallout from exploding fireworks poses a threat to "nature, animals and human beings."

In addition to the charges of blackpowder (containing carcinogenic sulfur-coal compounds) that send skyrockets airborne and blast them into patterns of glowing sparks, fireworks contain a number of toxic metals that produce a range of dazzling colors. Strontium produces blazing reds, copper compounds burn blue, magnesium, titanium and aluminum create brilliant white sparks. Sodium chloride produces orange-yellow fire, boric acid burns green, potassium and rubidium compounds produce purples and burning lithium glows red. Glittering greens are produced by radioactive barium.

During the Stockholm Water Festival in 1996, air pollutant levels were measured before and after the fireworks display. Levels of airborne arsenic were found to be twice normal, while levels of mercury, cadmium, lead, copper, zinc and chromium were as high as 500 times above normal.

The October 1999 issue of the Swedish technical magazine New Teknik estimated that millennium fireworks shows would dump three tons of lead, 60 tons of chromium and several kilograms of cadmium over Sweden within a matter of hours. Add to this the fact that noise from exploding fireworks can top 130 decibels (acoustic health specialists have shown that exposure to 105 dB for one hour can damage hearing), and it's no surprise that the Bulletin reports that a surprisingly large percentage of Swedish citizens now favor a total ban.

Assuming the same amount of per-capita fireworks was used in all European Union countries to welcome the year 2000, the Bulletin estimates that the millennial celebrations shot 124 tons of lead into the air of the European Union countries. The spectacular show above Australia's Sydney Harbor filled the air with an estimated six tons of lead. In the US, fireworks shows may have generated 90 tons of sky-borne lead pollution -- a flagrant (and pungent) violation of the Clean Air Act.

"The increased exposure constitutes a direct risk for people with asthma, metal allergies and chemical sensitivities," The Bulletin notes. "Infants and children are particularly vulnerable and may suffer permanent damage. Many pet owners and farmers are concerned, and wildlife remains completely unprotected." Fireworks displays, critics argue, may even violate Agenda 21 of the UN Earth Summit agreement.

"How can we expect people in the so-called third world to be environmentally friendly if we cannot abstain from completely useless pollution?" the Bulletin asks.

Skylighter, Inc., the "supermarket of pyrotechnics," stocks more than 108 different chemical additives used in the production of fireworks.

Skylighter's inventory includes acetone, ammonium perchlorate, benzoic acid, boric acid, calcium carbonate, xylene, chlorine, alcohol, sodium fluoaluminate, dextrin, sodium benzoate, guanidine nitrate, hexachloroethane, stearic acid, iodine, lactose, lead tetraoxide, sodium bicarbonate, lead monoxide, methylene chloride, shellac, oxalic acid, chlorinated rubber, polyethylene, tungsten, zinc chromate, sodium salicylate, polyvinyl chloride and sorbitol - along with such prosaic items as pine rosin, tropical tree resin and rice hulls (coated with burst-powder to break shells).

Fireworks shows are big business. New York-based Grucci ("The First Family of Fireworks") made $2.1 million on Independence Day shows in 1999. Grucci's New Year's spectacular at the Washington Monument required 140 tons of sand, 135 miles of wire, 26 pyrotechnicians and enough lumber to build a single-family house. The number of exploding shells is a family secret. "We address our programs as an art," says Felix Grucci, Jr. "You wouldn't ask Michelangelo how many buckets of paint he used to paint the Sistine Chapel."

The booming economy has caused pyrotechnic profits to skyrocket as corporations -- and newly super-rich individuals -- increasingly turn to the rockets' red glare to spice up corporate events and private parties. And the bombs bursting in air are getting bigger. A Grucci spokesperson interviewed by the New York Times reported that customers who were satisfied with four-inch shells last year are now insisting on six-inch shells that detonate 200 feet in the air.

The exploding use of fireworks poses an increasing -- and unexplored -- threat to human health. Airborne chemical particulates have been linked to lung cancer, heart attacks and premature deaths. An estimated 50,000 US citizens die each year from exposure to airborne particulates.

The Bulletin has called on Sweden's health authorities to provide all vulnerable citizens with protective facemasks, goggles, and earplugs. Shelters could also be provided for anyone who does not wish to be exposed to the noise, glare, and fallout.

If we must forego the guilty pleasure of fireworks shows, how then should we celebrate momentous events? The Bulletin has a simple suggestion: "Watch the stars." And for the house-bound celebrant, PBS' "Nova" hosts Kaboom!, a website that invites visitors to design their own world-class pyrotechnic extravaganzas, complete with virtual explosions, musical accompaniment -- and absolutely no air pollution.

Gar Smith, the former editor of Earth Island Journal, now heads Earth Island's new electronic magazine The-Edge.