State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Fourth of July fireworks: water contaminants?


Fourth of July fireworks across the United States are definitely a long tradition that millions of people eagerly wait and enjoy.

Yet, the environmental concerns about fireworks near water bodies have been raised. The concern is that fireworks traditionally have included potassium perchlorate as the oxidizer, a material that provides the oxygen that fireworks need to burn and that perchlorate is an environmental pollutant with potential adverse effects on people (it affects the functioning of the thyroid gland) and wildlife. A study focusing on perchlorate contamination of lakes near Oklahoma after fireworks displays was reported in the journal Environmental Science & Technology in 2007. In each of the fireworks events examined in the study showed that perchlorate concentrations attained a maximum level within one day following the display. Subsequently, concentrations decreased and reached the background level within 20 to 80 days after the Fourth of July. Richard Wilkin, a geochemist with the EPA who authored the study, says there are still many knowledge gaps about the effects on water resources of perchlorate contamination from fireworks. “But we should think about whether water bodies near where fireworks are set off are used for drinking water,” Wilkin said.

However, the good news is that we are making the right way to “green” fireworks, green as in environmentally friendly. According to American Chemical Society news, Fourth of July fireworks might go green in near future. It reported that scientists have developed new pyrotechnic formulas that replace perchlorate with nigrogen-rich materials or nitrocellulose that burn cleaner and produce less smoke. The new formulas also use fewer color-producing chemicals, cutting down on the amount of heavy metals used and lowering their potentially toxic effects. The big challenge is making these eco-friendly fireworks cost-competitive with conventional fireworks, while maintaining their dazzle and glow.

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Ryan Withall
Ryan Withall
14 years ago

I’m currently in Northern Michigan measuring ambient SO2 levels with Dr. Barry Lefer from the University of Houston. Northern Michigan normally has very clean air, but we saw a spike of SO2 in the early morning hours of July 5th, the spike was nearly 1000x normal levels for the air flow patterns of the time. We believe this spike came from fireworks displays to the southwest of our location after looking at airflow back-trajectories. If the spike did indeed come from the fireworks display, it’s pretty amazing how much pollution the fireworks can contribute to the atmosphere.

6 years ago

This is absolutely crazy! Didn’t know, and I used to love fireworks. Need water testing devices to be highly distributed and available to the masses in order to enable people to test water and ensure that chemicals from fireworks are not harming rivers and lakes nearby.