*WARNING: Don’t read unless you want fireworks ruined for you forever!*
For those of you unfamiliar with this, the most British of holidays – on November 5th we celebrate a failed terrorist attempt! In the 1600s, a man named Guy Fawkes, with a few of his buddies, tried to blow up the houses of parliament with the then king inside them. He was ratted out by someone and didn’t succeed (he apparently got pretty close though). And now every year, we have a big fire where we burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes and set off fireworks. It’s essentially the British equivalent of July 4th (America), except we are celebrating not being free of a monarchy and not the other way round. It has a lot of basis in religious nonsense (the fight between Catholicism and Protestantism), people like to think that religious terrorism is a new thing but white people invented it.
Bonfire night/Guyfawkes/ whatever is regularly the most polluted night of the year.
You’re probably familiar with fireworks. They’re those big explodey, pretty things we use to mark big occasions? Well, it turns out that setting off explosives is actually bad for the environment – who would have thought? You’ve probably noticed the thick smoggy air that hangs about after a fireworks day. This smoke consists of very fine dust (particulate matter) which can wreak havoc for people with asthma or another sensitivity. These smoke particulates include metals – fireworks get their bright opulence from the ignition of various metallic compounds. These are usually some pretty nasty things, things you wouldn’t want all up in and around your face but we end up breathing them in and they also work their way through our environment. The effects of fireworks aren’t just limited to the immediate area of detonation either. Due to their size and the existence of winds, pollutants are spread some distance – so it’s not something you can really escape.
Some firework ingredients:
This is used to help the ignition of the firework (and other explosive things such as rocket fuel and flares) . This compound can easily contaminate water supplies when it settles to Earth. This poses a risk for aquatic life but also for humans as percholate can disrupt thyroid hormone production. Thyroid hormones are essential for proper development and help maintain proper conditions within the body. Percholate has a relatively short half-life (it doens’t last that long in the environment) but it is detected year-round in many areas, indicating that percholate contamination is not limited to fireworks.
- Barium salts (Green colours)
Barium is another naturally occurring metal, obtained through mining. Barium chloride (what is used in fireworks) can be highly toxic. Barium can be bio-accumulated by aquatic animals, meaning it increases in concentration up the food chain. Barium can cause a whole host of health problems including cramps, numbness, and changed in blood pressure. This has a very short half-life in the environment, so does not hang about for long – but in high enough quantities, it can be damaging.
- Copper salts (Blue colours)
Copper Chloride is the compound the creates the blue colours in fireworks. When the copper chloride is burned during firework explosion, this produces dioxins. Dioxins don’t occur naturally and have a number of human health implications. The most common adverse effect of dioxin exposure is cloracne, which is a skin disorder that leads to acne-like marks over the upper body, including the face. dioxins have also been shown to be a carcinogen (cancer-causing), disrupt hormone production, and slow glucose metabolism.
Any unreacted copper chloride that makes it’s way back down to Earth, is likely to not cause health problems to us but can pose a great risk to aquatic life. Copper chloride can be toxic to aquatic life, these creatures bioaccumulate (it builds up in their bodies) copper chloride and have many health problems as a result. Copper is very tough on the gills of aquatic animals, and can prevent them from being able to regulate their body chemistry effectively. Copper also impacts a fishes sense of smell and reduces their ability to be able to locate food.
In some countries, fireworks containing lead and mercury are still permitted which have many adverse impacts – these are illegal in Europe. A firework display also produces carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxde, and ozone (it’s bad in the lower atmosphere) which can contribute to climate change, acid rain, and respiratory problems.
Fireworks are loud. This can cause a lot of stress and panic in wild animals – subsequently causing them to flee. Many animals may get hurt or killed during this panic (i.e. running into a road). The RSPB likened this to the same level of disturbance as a thunderstorm and stated that it poses little notable risk to wildlife. But as, around this time of year, there seems to a steady stream of fireworks from October through to January, it must have some adverse impact. Wildlife may also be affected by any debris from exploded fireworks, consumption of some of the not-so-nice stuff in fireworks will not be good for Mr bunny. The impact of fireworks on wildlife is magnified greatly when they are used improperly (wildfires etc.).
What Goes Into Making A Firework?
All of the metallic components of fireworks are naturally occurring which means that they need to mined from the environment. This is mostly done through a highly destructive, open-cast mining technique where the material above the deposits is completely removed. This can vastly alter environments and cause a lot of pollution.
Fireworks are cased in paper, which comes from trees. I don’t know about you, but checking that your fireworks are made from sustainably sourced paper isn’t high of many peoples agendas. Some fireworks companies are Forest Stewardship Council certified. But, for the most part, you have no way of knowing if that tree you’re about to blow up is from an ancient woodland or was sustainably sourced. And, despite the fact that fireworks are cased in paper, you cannot recycle them due to their dangerous chemical content. This leads to a lot of extra waste each year, as fireworks are used to mark celebrations the world over.
Most of the fireworks (90%) used globally are produced in China. Often, these factories use child labour and have much less stringent safety regulations,which can have disastrous consequences for the workers. In the US alone, 50 million kg are imported from China – that is roughly half of all the fireworks they use annually. Shipping these incredible amounts of fireworks generates a lot of greenhouse gases – for something that is literally going to be blown up when it gets there!
So, not only do we set off fireworks on Guy Fawke’s Night but we traditionally have a bonfire – often where an effigy of Guy himself is burned. This is adding a lot of extra, unnecessary pollution to the environment.
In the UK 2 billion kg of waste (9% of total) is incinerated annually, this is a process for energy generation. Bonfire night celebrations (including fireworks) have a worse effect on the UK’s air quality than the combined annual emissions of waste incineration. Many people take a bonfire as an opportunity too have a clear out, and just end up burning all kinds of stuff like plastics, furniture, etc. This is not great for the environment – burning these products release noxious chemicals into the environment, which contributes greatly to the amount of pollution caused. More dioxins and carbon from the bonfires in one weekend than two whole months of industrial processes. These are very bad news for people with respiratory issues and any extra carbon in the environment is just bad news at this point!
There is an argument made that, if you are burning just untreated wood, no more carbon is released by burning the wood than if it were to decompose naturally. But most of the carbon from decomposition ends up in the soil, and subsequently back in plants. The decay process is also an important ecological step, providing a home and food for a multitude of organisms! So, basically I’m saying, just let it rot.
- Try to find ‘eco-fireworks’
Eco-fireworks are trickier to find than you average firework but could be worth it, if you are keen to have your cake AND eat it. These fireworks have either no or reduced levels of the harmful percholate and barium. They also come in packaging that is more recyclable! These fireworks don’t mean that there is no environmental impact but they do reduce it slightly. The most ‘eco’ firework is the one that doesn’t exist (which can be said for almost anything really).
Traditionally firework dominated events might be a bit boring without them. If this is the case for you, consider going to a public display rather than have one at home. The fireworks will probably be much better than you could do at home! There is also the added benefit of one big display will likely have a smaller environmental impact than a mess of smaller ones.
Some public displays make efforts to be more environmentally friendly. For example, the new ear celebrations in Sydney – the display is 100% carbon neutral (through carbon offsets) and people are encouraged to leave their cars at home! Also, the daily displays at Disney parks use air canons to launch it’s fireworks, which reduces the amount of resources needed and the amount of pollution created.
To ease your conscience about your explosive celebrations (or any part of your life, really), you can purchase carbon offsets. This is basically where you donate some money to an organisation for them to plant trees or fund renewable energy projects. Different amounts of emissions cost different amounts of money – to offset more of your carbon footprint would cost you more money. It can get expensive to have a conscience.
If you are going to purchase a carbon offset, do some research on your chosen vendor beforehand to ensure their credibility and see if the projects they are associated with are something you’d be interested in supporting. Groups that are Voluntary Gold Standard or Voluntary Carbon Standard accredited have undergone some more vetting to ensure their projects are meeting the goals they claim.
- Only burn dry untreated wood
If you are going to have a fire, burn only dry, untreated wood to reduce not-so-great chemical emissions. This means finding another ways to dispose of all your miscellaneous waste. You should also try to skip chemical accelerants and fire starters, as these are also pollutants.
Before you light your fire, ensure there are no creatures that have taken up residence in the nice pile of logs you’ve built for them. Hedgehogs especially, these cute little guys are really struggling at the moment due to lack of habitats and love nothing more than taking a nap in a big pile of leaves. You don’t need a hedgehog life on your conscience.
Also, ensure that you clean up after your firework display and that you don’t host your display near wildlife areas or areas that at risk of wildfires.
Ensure that any fires or firework displays are held at a sufficient distance from wild areas. And that they are properly put out or disposed of. Failure to do so could result in a wildfire, especially if the weather has been dry. The person in charge of these displays should know what they are doing to minimise any health and safety issues.
This applies to firework displays and fires. Bigger is not always better – especially when it comes to the environment! Small, hot fires promote efficient burning and reduce the amount of smoke and pollutants the fire exudes. Small fireworks displays are better as they use less resources, so are less damaging to the environment. Also, having a bonfire AND fireworks is too much, if you’re gonna do it this year – pick one. I, personally, would prefer a fire because it’s warm.
Wait 15 minutes after the display has finished to ensure the fireworks are cool and you aren’t hit with any surprises. Clear up the fireworks and submerge them in a bucket of water for a minimum of 24 hours. Come back to check you’ve picked them all up in the daylight, when you can actually see. Once they been soaked, the fireworks can be double-plastic-bagged and placed in your general bin.
If all you want to do is celebrate, it doesn’t need to be so destructive. Why don’t you throw a dinner party, have a few drinks, or go on a starlight (firework-light) walk!
Obviously, people aren’t going to stop setting off fireworks but as an individual, you can make a difference. Just make good choices and avoiding buying your own fireworks. Remember, remember the fifth of November but please also remember the environment.
If you have anything to add, leave it in the comments!
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