It’s that time of year again, when millions of Americans celebrate our country’s independence by buying tons of fireworks to blow up over a period of several days. Admittedly I loved setting off firecrackers and M-60s when I was a kid, but no one had taken the time to explain to me the damage these explosives could do, other than warnings about not blowing off my fingers. And while I dutifully went out and swept up the debris afterward, I didn’t understand fully how fireworks harm nature.
Had I known then what I know now, I might not have been so enthusiastic about fireworks. I’ve always been a nature nerd, even at a very young age, but I didn’t always know how to connect everyday activities to their impact on the natural world. Environmental topics were always presented to me as something that happened elsewhere, like trying to keep giant pandas from going extinct, or saving the rainforests of the Amazon. That, of course, served to keep anyone from questioning what was happening right here at home.
Now that I am older and wiser, I have a much better understanding of how everything is connected, and how everything we do has some impact for good or ill. Let’s dig deeper into how the fireworks that will be detonated this year can affect the nature around them.
From end to end, the manufacture and use of both commercial and consumer-grade fireworks involves a whole host of chemicals that are hazardous to both our health and that of the ecosystems around us. Most start with potassium nitrate (which becomes gunpowder when mixed with the correct amounts of carbon and sulfur). A number of other compounds are added to create various colors and effects, as per this image from Compound Interest (click image for a larger version):
When these compounds are burned, they release significant amounts of airborne pollutants that affect the air we breathe, and then land in our water and soil. Some of these pollutants are toxic heavy metals such as magnesium, barium, strontium, lead, copper, potassium, and lithium. When certain heavy metals are absorbed into our bodies, whether through airborne particulates, the water we drink, or the food we eat, they can cause significant negative health effects. Even if you don’t experience any immediate, acute effects, long-term exposure often leads to chronic illnesses.
It’s not just ourselves that we have to worry about, either. Wildlife don’t have the option to move elsewhere if their habitat has been polluted by fireworks, and their health is often seriously compromised by heavy metals. Fish are especially susceptible to these pollutants which may accumulate in higher concentrations the higher up the food web you go.
Every being is at risk from the greenhouse gases produced by fireworks, including carbon dioxide and monoxide, nitrogen, nitrous oxide, and sulfur dioxide (the lattermost of which is well-known as a contributing factor to acid rain.) While fireworks may not be the biggest source of greenhouse gases that are fueling anthropogenic climate change, they’re one that is easy to cut out of our lives as they are completely unnecessary.
Other Impacts on Wildlife
It’s not just the chemicals that threaten wildlife, though. the loud, percussive noise of fireworks is incredibly terrifying and disruptive to many wild animals (and domestic ones, too!) When a region is full of fireworks noise, animals may have nowhere to go to escape many nights of noise and flashing lights. The stress can cause their immune systems to tank, and has even led to the deaths of wildlife that either die from fear, or which run in front of vehicles while fleeing in panic. The effects may persist even after the fireworks are done for the year.
The timing of Independence Day is especially troubling as it is during the breeding/nesting season of many species of bird and other wild animal. The disruptive influence of fireworks can scare parent animals away from nests and dens, causing them to abandon their young, who will die without their parents’ support. (Birds that nest on beaches are at particular risk, since these places are especially popular for blowing up fireworks.) For what it’s worth, New Year’s Eve fireworks are also dangerous, as birds roosting in large groups nearby may die as a result of the commotion.
Another way fireworks harm nature is the explosions themselves. If a small animal happens to be in the ground at or near where a firework is being lit, the explosion can burn them to death or kill them through percussion. Other animals nearby can also be injured by the heat and percussion. The force of larger airborne fireworks can even knock birds out of the sky if they happen to be in range. And even if the wildlife are able to escape, they may waste a lot of precious energy being constantly panicked by the ongoing terrifying displays. The loss of that energy may be the difference between life and death if the animals are not able to find enough food to make up for the caloric deficit.
Even after the fireworks are done and everyone goes home, the debris left behind continues to pose a threat to wildlife. Like other trash, fireworks debris can be mistaken for food by birds, fish, and other animals. Even if they aren’t poisoned by its ingestion, the debris builds up in their stomach until they die of a fatal impaction or starve because they can no longer eat and digest actual food.
The Risk of Wildfire
As climate change has caused prolonged drought across large portions of the United States and beyond, the decades of built-up ladder fuels left from fire suppression become a greater wildfire hazard. Any source of sparks may set off wildfires that could consume hundreds or even thousands of acres, but fireworks are one of the most unnecessary sources of potential wildfire danger.
The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon and Washington torched nearly 50,000 acres of forest and damaged several popular trails; parts of it continued to smolder nearly a year later. The fire threatened almost 300 homes and other buildings, and trapped over 150 hikers on the Eagle Creek trail.
The cause? One fifteen year old boy tossing firecrackers over the edge of a cliff. This illustrates that anyone with fireworks, even something as seemingly small and insignificant as a firecracker shorter than one’s finger, can start a devastating wildfire. These fires kill numerous wild animals and plants, and additionally threaten any humans living in the area or working to fight the fire.
When Fireworks Harm Nature, What Can We Do?
With so many people insisting on blowing things up to celebrate holidays, it can feel like an uphill battle. Yet there is a growing movement to ban the sale and use of fireworks in many municipalities, counties, and other regions. Some states restrict the sale of certain fireworks, and Massachusetts has even banned all of them. If you are concerned about fireworks in your community, try to find other people with similar concerns. Then, as a group, present your arguments to your city or county councilpeople and urge them to ban fireworks in their jurisdiction.
It’s also important to educate others on how fireworks harm nature. Many people simply don’t know the connection, much like I was unaware as a child because no one has told me. While you may meet resistance from some people, it’s important to keep putting the information out there in a calm, reasonable manner so that more receptive people can access it. (You can even use this article you’re reading right now as an easy access resource! Just please give me credit and include a link to my website if you decide to print it out to hand out to others.)
Finally, offer up alternatives to fireworks. Here are some fun, kid-friendly projects that are easy to find or put together (please make sure to clean up any plastic like glow sticks or silly string.) Consider laser or light displays instead of fireworks (by the way, “silent” fireworks are not actually silent, and they still release pollutants into the air, water, and soil.) If you absolutely must burn something, consider having a small bonfire in a safe, contained area (unless there’s a burn ban in your area) and always practice campfire safety. It can be a great way to get together with friends and family, and a campfire is better anyway since you can’t roast hot dogs or make s’mores over a pile of fireworks!