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How Green are Fireworks?

For 231 years, the United States has celebrated the nation’s independence (and its birthday) on July 4. For many of those years, many of us have celebrated by shooting off fireworks or otherwise blowing stuff up. Put in those terms, it seems like an odd way to celebrate, so we got to wondering: how green are fireworks, and should they be something to worry about?

When it comes to the environmental issue at the top of our list — that’s global warming – Grist’s Umbra Fisk notes [www.grist.org] that, “Although fireworks do give off carbon dioxide, they aren’t known for their greenhouse-gas impacts.” Whew. However, “They do have other potentially toxic components, and pollute air and water.” Hmm. Further, TreeHugger also noted that [www.treehugger.com] “fireworks are often propelled by gunpowder, and the accelerants and heavy metals used for coloration can leave traces in the air and water for days or even weeks after the party is over. The effects are worsened by muggy summer weather and its accompanying poor air quality.” Add to that a new report from Environmental Science & Technology [dx.doi.org] which states that “fireworks heavily contribute to perchlorate contamination of surrounding water bodies. Perchlorate is well-known to pose risks for both human health and wildlife.” Oh dear; are we eco-nerds going to have to rain on this parade, too?

Thankfully, there are a few newer developments that have us hopeful that fireworks will not be universally panned by the enviro-set. A Japanese company [www.asahi.com] has developed a new type of casing which creates a perfect sphere when it explodes, is biodegradable and is cheaper to produce. By mixing sawdust and rice chaff with biodegradable plastic, they’ve developed a product which is cheaper and greener than it’s predecessors. Even better, pyrotechnics experts at Disney announced in 2004 [corporate.disney.go.com] that they had devised a fireworks firing mechanism based on compressed air, which is safer, quieter, and much less polluting than black powder. At the time, plans were afoot to donate the patents to a non-profit company so that they could be licensed around the world, though we can’t find any further information about whether this actually happened. So, the final verdict: there are worse things you could do on the 4th, and bigger fish to fry when it comes to the scourge of the green world, but, as our recent reader survey noted [www.treehugger.com], it sure would be nice if they were greener. Enjoy the 4th and the fireworks, and look forward to a time when we won’t have to discuss whether or not it’s okay to engage in a traditional celebration.