Dear Vanessa,

Vanessa, I love ‘em, so I’m afraid to ask … what’s the deal with fireworks? It’s hard to imagine that they are eco-friendly, but maybe, just maybe, they aren’t that bad? 

— Milo

Dear Milo,

I’m so sorry. Fireworks are an environmental disaster. All those pretty colors come from somewhere, right? Reds are the product of strontium and lithium; copper burns blue and releases dioxins, which cause cancer; magnesium, titanium and aluminum make white sparks; sodium chloride is used for orange-yellow; boric acid for green; and potassium and rubidium produce purple. And, get this, radioactive barium produces sparkly greens.

After the fireworks display at the Stockholm Water Festival in 1996, levels of arsenic were twice the norm, and mercury, cadmium, lead, copper, zinc and chromium were as much as 500 times above normal.

The gunpowder alone — used for combustion — leaves behind potassium carbonate, potassium sulphate and sulphide, plus unreacted sulphur and levels of fine particulates that cause asthma, cancer and other respiratory problems. Oh, and this makes the air often exceed local and national air quality standards.

All this not only pollutes the air, but it also leaves deposits on soil, crops and water. High on the list of fireworks fallout, especially for water, is perchlorate. Perchlorate affects the thyroid gland and is well-known for health risks for humans and wildlife. An EPA study of an Oklahoma lake found that within 14 hours of a fireworks display, perchlorate levels were 1000 times higher than usual. It took up to 80 days for those levels to return to normal.

In a 2002 article, Gar Smith estimated that “in the U.S., fireworks shows may have generated 90 tons of sky-borne lead pollution — a flagrant (and pungent) violation of the Clean Air Act” and notes that “fireworks displays … may even violate Agenda 21 of the U.N. Earth Summit agreement.”

It is estimated that 1,460 tons of fireworks are set off in Switzerland every year — 1000 tons of cardboard, wood and plastic packaging, 240 tons of gunpowder and 120 tons of chemicals. Fireworks by Grucci, the self-proclaimed First Family of Fireworks based in New York, used 140 tons of sand, enough lumber to build a single-family house, and 135 miles of wire for a New Year's event at the Washington Monument.

All these resources and pollution are merely the result of detonating fireworks. Now consider the environmental costs of production and transportation!

Lead, radioactive barium, perchlorate, fine particulates, dioxins, lumber … As much as you may love ‘em, firework displays are not worth the costs.

It may be time for a revival of the Main Street parade — or, at least, laser shows — to replace fireworks.

Have a safe holiday,


Also on MNN: 

Translating Uncle Sam: MNN digs into the science behind fireworks. 

MNN homepage photo: mstay/iStockphoto 

Shooting (down) fireworks
Vanessa ruins the party.