July 4 fireworks could worsen pollution from Canadian wildfires

As smoke from Canadian wildfires lingers across much of the United States, Americans will soon experience another smoke show: Fourth of July fireworks.

It may come as a surprise, but the federal holiday stands out as the most polluted day of the year in many locations across the nation, according to air quality data. Fireworks — the staple of Independence Day celebrations — light up the sky but also launch harmful pollutants. In some cases, the pollution levels from the pyrotechnics are similar to severe wildfire smoke.

This year, those smoky celebrations may compound air quality issues in areas already suffering from Canadian wildfire smoke, as well as blazes in Colorado and other states. Forecasts suggest that areas near the border with Canada, near Montana and Minnesota, could see a dose of wildfire smoke, and New England could see a slight smoky haze ahead of the holiday.

“It is particularly important to be aware of potential air quality impacts from fireworks when there may already be high levels of pollution in the air, including pollution from wildfires,” Melissa Sullivan, a spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency said in an email. The agency recommends that people — especially the elderly, children or those with lung or heart disease — try to limit their pollution exposure by watching fireworks from the direction the wind is blowing or as far away as possible.

Americans love fireworks, and consumer purchases of them have grown to more than $2 billion yearly, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. But these explosives have been implicated with causing water pollution and sparking wildfires, and some environmentalists say that, given the times, some restraint is needed.

Bill Magavern, the policy director for the California nonprofit Coalition for Clean Air, acknowledges that “almost everybody enjoys a good fireworks display,” but the environmental impacts are becoming harder to ignore.

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“At a time when climate change is exacerbating air pollution and wildfires, we need to find cleaner substitutes for fireworks, especially in areas with poor air quality,” Magavern said.

Research shows a roughly 42 percent increase in fine particulate pollutants — known as PM 2.5, which are small enough to travel into our lungs and cause respiratory issues — following July 4 firework displays. The pollution slowly dissipates, but in many areas, air quality doesn’t return to normal until around noon the following day.

The trend is evident across the United States but more prominent in major cities. In D.C., firework displays have driven 24-hour averages of particulate pollutants above 150 micrograms per cubic meter — ranging from “unhealthy” to “very unhealthy” concentrations. Ryan Stauffer, an air quality scientist at NASA, said hourly readings can be much higher; In 2020, particulate pollution levels in D.C. were as high as 670 micrograms per cubic meter.

Other major cities, including New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles, experience the same spike.


How particulate pollution in 2023

stacks up to past years

Daily

average for

each year

since 2010

Chicago Metropolitan Area

New York Metropolitan Area

Los Angeles Metropolitan Area

Source: U.S. EPA AirData, updated on June 28th

How particulate pollution in 2023

stacks up to past years

Daily

average for

each year

since 2010

Chicago Metropolitan Area

New York Metropolitan Area

Los Angeles Metropolitan Area

Source: U.S. EPA AirData, updated on June 28th

This year’s fireworks are particularly concerning because wildfire smoke has already created a hazy summer, especially on the East Coast. On June 8, wildfire smoke from western Canada floated to the eastern United States and set records for the worst air quality on record — some of the highest recorded values were around 250 micrograms per cubic meter. Smog turned the skies orange in New York City. In D.C., the Washington Monument was hardly distinguishable beyond the haze.

Stauffer said the wildfire smoke on June 7 and June 8 produced pollution levels in cities traditionally only seen near the peak of July 4. Stauffer emphasized that these pollution levels remained heightened for 24 to 36 hours.

The recent and widespread wildfire smoke concerns some health practitioners. Stephanie Christenson, an associate professor and pulmonologist at the University of California at San Francisco, said she worries about how climate change will worsen air quality by increasing the severity of wildfires in the years to come.

“We could be seeing days to weeks of Fourth of July-like air quality issues,” she said.

Breathing in any kind of smoke can cause damage to one’s lungs, heart and brain, but fireworks contain many harmful particles that are different from other sources of air pollution. In addition to the fine particulate pollution, they contain a mix of metals, which produce the colors in the “rockets red glare” but can also be toxic to people — like lead, the EPA said. Fireworks also contain chemicals found in gasoline called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (commonly referred to as PAHs), which can cause cancer in high concentrations.

PAHs, as well as fine particulate pollution, are also concentrated in wildfire smoke.

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Local weather patterns, such as wind pushing smoke from fireworks on a boat, can affect how much people are exposed to toxic air, environmental health expert Kari Nadeau said. However, she said, the dilution of pollutants in the air does not eliminate their risk.

“You might not smell it, you might not see it, but it can still affect you,” said Nadeau, chair of the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Much of the pollution from fireworks comes from those ignited in people’s backyards or on streets, not necessarily from grand public displays, said Jun Wu, an environmental health scientist at the University of California at Irvine. In a 2021 study, Wu and her colleagues found that California communities with policies restricting street-level fireworks saw noticeably less pollution compared with those that didn’t.

Research by Wu and her team also suggests that the differing policies mean fireworks pollution doesn’t affect communities equally. In a study published this year focused on three counties in Southern California, they found that communities with higher proportions of Hispanic residents were exposed to greater particulate pollution than other communities.

“I think people need to be aware that there’s a cost associated with firework burning, not just money, but also the health-related costs and the cost to the environment,” Wu said.

Nadeau said she hopes communities affected by the Canadian wildfire smoke will consider calling off the pyrotechnics to avoid adding more pollution to the air. If residents choose to attend fireworks displays, she said, they can protect themselves by staying away from the point of launch and watching from upwind of the smoke.

“We can think about other ways to celebrate,” she said. “That would be ideal.”



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