Clear Lake Property Owners Association Clear Lake Property Owners Association

Setting off fireworks is a fun part of celebrating Victoria Day and Canada Day. However, there are some environmental effects that need to be kept in mind:

  • Air Pollution - The smoke from fireworks consists mainly of fine toxic dusts (particulate matter) that can easily enter the lungs. This represents a real threat for people with asthma or multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Smoke from fireworks combustion may contain a mixture of sulfur-coal compounds, traces of heavy metals, and other toxic chemicals or gases. The combustion cloud can contain harmful fumes such as ozone, sulfur dioxide and nitric oxide. Smoke from consumer fireworks is of most concern because they are released at a low level which makes inhalation more likely compared to professional displays. Additionally, in this time where the issues of climate change and global warming are being presented with a sense of urgency, we need to be concerned about the greenhouse gases fireworks produce, which include carbon dioxide (CO2) and ozone.
  • Water Pollution - Fireworks fallout can contaminate water supplies and residue on the ground can be carried away by rain and end up in our lake.
  • Noise Pollution - Fireworks can be loud and the vibrations can travel far. In the middle of the night fireworks often disturb people trying to sleep. Fireworks can exceed 140 decibels and noise at 85 decibels or above can damage hearing.

The Toxic Elements of Fireworks

Toxic Element Fireworks Usage Toxic Effects
Aluminum brilliant whites Contact dermatitis, bioaccumulation
Antimony sulfide glitter effects Toxic smoke, possible carcinogen
Arsenic compounds Used as colorants. Sadly still out there.1 Toxic ash can cause lung cancer, skin irritation and wart formation.
Barium Nitrate glittering greens Poisonous. Fumes can irritate respiratory tract. Possible radioactive fallout. 2
Copper compounds blues Polychlorinated dioxins and dibenzofurans.3 Can bioaccumulate. Cancer risk.
Hexachlorobenzene (HCB)3 Use was supposed to be banned globally. Persistent environmental toxin. Is a carcinogen, mutagen and a reproductive hazard. 4
Lead Dioxide / Nitrate / Chloride oxidizer Bioaccumulation, developmental danger for kids & unborn babes, may remain airborne for days, poisonous to plants & animals.
Lithium compounds blazing reds Toxic and irritating fumes when burned.
Mercury (Mercurous chloride) chlorine donor Toxic heavy metal. Can bioaccumulate.
Nitric oxide fireworks byproduct5 Toxic by inhalation. Is a free radical.
Nitrogen dioxide fireworks byproduct5 Highly toxic by inhalation. SIDS risk.6
Ozone fireworks byproduct7 Greenhouse gas that attacks & irritates lungs.
Perchlorate - Ammonium & Potassium propellant / oxidizer Can contaminate ground & surface waters, can cause thyroid problems in humans & animals.
Potassium Nitrate in black powder Toxic dusts, carcinogenic sulfur-coal compounds.
Strontium compounds blazing reds Can replace calcium in body. Strontium chloride is slightly toxic.
Sulfur Dioxide gaseous byproduct of sulfur combustion Acid rain from sulphuric acid affects water sources, vegetation & causes property damage. SIDS risk.6

Inconclusive Fireworks Research

In the summer of 2009, the Lake George Association (a lake association in New Hampshire) studied the effects of professional fireworks displays on the local environment. They took water samples immediately before and after their July 4th weekend to determine the effect of 21 fireworks shows on the water quality. They also took core samples at several locations to measure the long term effect. They only looked at a subset of potentially harmful chemicals, but they found that there was no measurable effect. Read the entire presentation: An Initial Study into the Effects of Fireworks on the Water Quality of Lake George, 1.4Mb

Other studies have shown that there are indeed negative environmental effects of fireworks displays:

  • A case study has shown that within 1 hour of fireworks displays levels of Strontium in the air increased 120 times, Magnesium 22 times, Barium 12 times, Potassium 11 times, and Copper 6 times more than the amount present in the air before the event. Strontium was found to be the best tracer in this study because it measured very high during the event and much lower at other time intervals which indicated that it was mostly a result of the fireworks display.8
  • Another study found that firework events brought air pollution spikes in suspended particles, Nitric oxide (NO), Sulfur dioxide (SO2), and created and dispersed an aerosol cloud hosting a range of metallic elements. The researchers found that although the "recreational pollution" from fireworks is transient in nature, the pollutants are highly concentrated and add significantly to the total yearly metal emissions and the particles are on average small enough to be easily inhaled which poses a health risk to sensitive individuals.9
  • Researchers have found that fireworks can create a burst of ozone which is an extremely reactive greenhouse gas molecule that can attack and irritate the lungs. The ozone is believed to be caused by ultraviolet light released by chemicals in fireworks, which in this study were sparklers.7
  • A 3 week study in London recorded two major festivals celebrated with pyrotechnic events and found that they were marked by increased gas phase pollutant levels of Nitric oxide (NOx) and Sulfur dioxide (SO2), elevated PM mass concentrations, as well as trace metal concentrations, specifically Strontium (Sr), Magnesium (Mg), Potassium (K), Barium (Ba), and Lead (Pb). These changes in air quality were then related to the oxidative activity of daily PM samples by assessing their capacity to drive the oxidation of physiologically important lung antioxidants. Because of the elevated PM concentrations caused by firework activity and the increased oxidative activity of this PM source, the researchers believe more work needs to be done in examining if exposure to firework derived PM is related to acute respiratory outcomes.10
  • Another study from 2010 attempts to estimate the probable health impact of exposure to the pollution caused by fireworks. Using risk data from epidemiological studies conducted in USA, they estimated that when exposed to air pollution from fireworks the relative risk of cardiovascular mortality would increase as high as 125.11% and the relative risk for cardiovascular morbidity was found to increase 175.16% over a regular winter day. The authors conclude that further studies on control measures for firework displays are needed to help reduce the probable health hazards to the general public.11


[1] Steinhauser, Georg. "Heavy metals from pyrotechnics in New Years Eve snow.", Atmospheric Environment, Volume 42, Issue 37, December 2008

[2] Steinhauser G and Musilek A. "Do pyrotechnics contain radium?", Environ, Res. Lett. 4 034006 July-September 2009

[3] O. Fleischer. "Release of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans by setting off fireworks.", Chemosphere, Volume 39, Issue 6, September 1999

[4] "Hexachlorobenzene (HCB) in Fireworks - Guidance Note", The Environment Agency, September 2010

[5] Russell, Michael S. The Chemistry of Fireworks, 2000

[6] Dales, Robert. "Air Pollution and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.", Pediatrics, Vol. 113 No. 6 June 2004

[7] Attri, Arun K. "Microclimate: Formation of Ozone by Fireworks.", Nature, Volume 411, June 28, 2001

[8] Vecchi, Roberta. "The Impact of Fireworks on Airborne Particles.", Atmospheric Environment

[9] Moreno, Teresa. "Recreational atmospheric pollution episodes: Inhalable metalliferous particles from firework displays.", Atmospheric Environment, Volume 41, Issue 5, February 2007

[10] Godri KJ, Green DC. "Particulate Oxidative Burden Associated with Firework Activity.", Environmental Science & Technology, October 1, 2010

[11] B. Thakur. "Air pollution from fireworks during festival of lights (Deepawali) in Howrah, India - a case study.", Atmosfera, Vol 23, No 4, 2010