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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Nature and Art of Fireworks

Air Date: Week of

Every year we celebrate America’s independence by sending combustible cocktails called fireworks into the sky. And every year some environmentalists object. This year, a lawyer representing a coastal conservation group in California won a suit that would force locals wanting to light-up to first file an environmental impact report with the state. It nearly kept the town’s fireworks show grounded. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah looks at the chemistry of what goes up and what comes down. Photo: Fourth of July on San Diego Harbor (Wikimedia)


GELLERMAN: The rockets’ red glare…the bombs bursting in air…


GELLERMAN: Give proof that…it’s the Fourth of July. But on the fifth, when it’s clean-up time, there are environmental costs to be accounted for. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah investigates the chemistry of fireworks and what happens when they fall back to Earth.


SRISKANDARAJAH: This fireworks show in Petersburg, Alaska sounds like hundreds, maybe thousands, happening over the Fourth of July weekend. It’s the one time each year the whole country celebrates with rockets and bombs. While most of us ‘ooh and ahh’ at the dazzling pyrotechnics in the sky, a few environmentalists, like Marco Gonzales from San Diego, complain.

Aerial view of La Jolla. (wikimedia)

GONZALEZ: Every time I’ve gone to a show that’s been near habitat, it’s just grated on me - the noise, the light, the cloud of smoke. It just hasn’t made sense that nobody looks at these because they’re on a holiday.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Gonzalez is the lawyer for the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, or
CERF. For a decade he has been suing to make firework shows accountable for their environmental impact. This year, he won. A judge ruled the San Diego and
La Jolla fireworks violate the California Environmental Quality Act.

View from Horseshoe, La Jolla. Marco Gonzalez says that firework shows scare wildlife and make them more susceptible to predation. Mike Swisher says thunder storms have the same effect. (Photo: Wikimedia)

GONZALEZ: The reason we focused on La Jolla is because it’s a very pristine and very protected marine habitat. You’re not allowed to fish, you’re not allowed to take boats into these areas, and yet once a year, we shoot off hundreds of pounds of fireworks into these highly protected areas.

SRISKANDARAJAH: It was the first time in the country that a court ruled that a fireworks show near water needed an environmental impact report. Then on June 3rd, the judge granted a stay on the ruling so the show in La Jolla could go on.

This legal battle in California is typical of the yearly tug of war between environmentalists and pyrophiles - a fight that the eco-blog, Treehugger, calls “the annual whine.” But firework makers have their own green heritage. The
Pyrotechnic Guild International’s mascot is a firework-wielding, green man dressed in leaves. Mike Swisher, a licensed firework manufacturer in Minnesota, says the guild’s tree-hugging slogan, “Stay Green,” is just a coincidence.

The Pyrotechnics Guild International mascot, “Green Man,” comes from John Bate’s treatise on fireworks in 1635. The emblem traces back to wild Russian men, covered in leaves, who would set off “primitive fireworks and ignite the beards of passers-by." For centuries the traditional greeting between pyrophiles was, “stay green.”

SWISHER: I certainly don’t think it was originally intended that way. The green man is taken from a book called “The Mysteries of Nature and Art,” published in 1635 by John Bate. In fact, there have been some misunderstandings about fireworks and the environment.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Where pyrotechnicians see misunderstanding, environmentalists like Gonzalez see smoke and obscurity.

GONZALEZ: A lot of people don’t know what goes into fireworks, what makes those bright lights, and what really falls down once they explode.

SRISKANDARAJAH: But Swisher does know. That rockets’ red glare…

SWISHER: Typical ingredients for that would be 60% potassium chlorate, 20% strontium carbonate, 15% resin - like red gum or shellac - and 5% dextrin.

SRISKANDARAJAH: And those bombs bursting in air…

SWISHER: That’s a salute - those are created with a material called flash powder and that’s usually a mixture of some oxidizer with powdered aluminum.

SRISKANDARAJAH: If enough metals like aluminum fall into the water, they could be eaten by small fish and work their way up the food chain. That could be toxic in fish eaten by humans.
And the most common oxidizer is perchlorate - that can cause thyroid problems in high enough quantities. But Swisher says there aren’t enough active ingredients to do damage.

Fourth of July at the Washington Monument. (Wikimedia)

SWISHER: If you were to look at the gross weight of fireworks used in a fireworks display, about half of that is inert - in other words, it’s paper or string. If you were using 500 pounds of fireworks, 250 of that is not even going to enter into the chemical reaction.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The EPA mostly has no problem with fireworks, and most Americans love them. But Marco Gonzalez is fine being the black cloud trying to rain on the Fourth of July parade. He has his own plan for Independence Day.

GONZALEZ: I’ll actually be in La Jolla, taking water samples. The way we view this is it’s a war. And there’s a lot of battles and there’s a lot of battlegrounds, so I think in 10 years will we have a lot more data on fireworks as a result of our efforts today? Absolutely.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Meanwhile, the rest of the country will enjoy the fireworks.

[FIREWORKS EXPLODE; “Go as fast as you can! GO, GO, GO, GO!!”]

SRISKANDARAJAH: For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.



Read CERF’s legal argument


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