Can Watching Fireworks Cause Health Problems?

Watching fireworks

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You know how your dog has a nervous breakdown every time there's a nearby fireworks display, whimpering and quivering and hiding under the bed, utterly incapable of being consoled? Well, according to certain experts, it turns out your dog may be on to something.

The Problem With Fireworks

Around the world and for several centuries, the loud, bright, colorful, joyful explosions created by fireworks have been a beloved component of all sorts of public celebrations. (It is true that the Chinese invented fireworks as many as 2000 years ago, but at the time they employed them for more utilitarian purposes, such as scaring away ghosts and nomads.)

So it may be a surprise to learn that experts in air quality, as well as many pulmonary specialists, have come to regard fireworks displays with a certain amount of dismay. Fireworks, we now know, can produce episodes of appreciable air pollution, and with some highly irritating chemicals. Worse, fireworks-associated air pollution can lead to medical problems in people with pre-existing lung and heart conditions.

Fireworks and Air Quality

Several environmental researchers have studied air quality following fireworks displays, at many locations around the world. All of these studies have shown that fireworks generate a host of airborne pollutants that none of us would want to breathe.

Aerial fireworks are tightly packed shells of combustible chemicals that are carefully engineered to produce spectacular sonic and visual effects when ignited. Black powder (a mixture of charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate) is used to propel the shell high in the air, and then (by means of a timed fuse) to ignite the explosion. The explosion propels “stars” (small, spherical objects that burn more slowly when ignited) in all directions. It is the stars that create the bright, fizzing sparks that delight us so much. The stars themselves may contain their own smaller shells, which create multi-stage explosions.

A myriad of chemicals are used to create all those colors we see when fireworks explode. For instance, sodium compounds create the yellows; barium compounds create the greens; copper compounds create the blues; and strontium and lithium compounds create the reds. Other chemicals are employed to create various effects, such as lead, arsenic, manganese, aluminum, cadmium, and iron.

The multitude of chemicals that are propelled into the air when fireworks explode are not completely consumed by combustion. This is obvious to anyone who has seen all the smoke, and smelled the acrid air, in the vicinity of a fireworks display. It turns out that fireworks create an impressive amount of air pollution.

In addition to the standard kinds of gaseous pollutants that result from burning hydrocarbons (such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide), fireworks explosions release a variety of other substances into the atmosphere. Many of these substances occur in the form of airborne particulate matter, which is of optimal size to enter deep into our lungs as we breathe. The airborne particulate matter produced by fireworks often contain the various metallic chemicals employed in constructing the fireworks.

Numerous studies of air quality in areas near fireworks displays have all shown that there is an immediate and substantial increase in this very concerning type of air pollution. The duration of the poor air quality after a fireworks display, and the land area affected, will vary tremendously, and is related to local topography, and (especially) to weather characteristics, such as wind velocity, humidity, and precipitation. But in general, air quality is affected for at least several hours after a fireworks display.

What Medical Problems Have Been Associated With Fireworks Displays?

It is well known that airborne particulate matter, of the size commonly produced by fireworks, can cause pulmonary problems in people with pre-existing lung disease.

In those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), elevated levels of airborne particulate matter has been strongly associated with worsening dyspnea (shortness of breath), a deterioration in pulmonary function studies, and increased rates of hospitalization and death. While a similar worsening of medical problems has not been directly correlated with fireworks displays, experts believe the airborne products of fireworks can certainly produce the same kinds of problems.

In people with asthma, the air pollution caused by fireworks has pretty clearly been shown to produce symptoms. In particular, wheezing and asthma attacks may occur very quickly during close exposure to a fireworks display. At least one death has been attributed to a severe asthma attack, leading to cardiac arrest, in a woman who was exposed to dense smoke from fireworks.

While heart attacks and other acute cardiac problems have not been proven to result from fireworks-related air pollution, any cause of reduced blood oxygen levels can be dangerous to a person with underlying heart disease. People with poorly controlled angina, or who have heart failure, may be particularly at risk.

How to Avoid Fireworks-Related Medical Issues

There is no doubt that the unique variety of pollutants produced by fireworks seems quite concerning. However, the medical problems actually demonstrated to be caused by air pollution from fireworks are pretty much the same as the medical problems caused by any other air pollution.

The big difference is that, unlike typical air pollution, the pollution produced by fireworks is transient — and better yet, it is scheduled. The transient nature of this pre-scheduled air pollution event usually gives us the opportunity to avoid problems altogether.

Using common sense is the key. If you are a person with asthma or COPD who finds it useful to follow the Air Quality Index (AQI) in order to avoid a worsening of your symptoms, then you are also a person who ought to avoid proximity to fireworks displays. If you find yourself nearby during a fireworks display, you should move as far away as you reasonably can, preferably in the upwind direction. If you can get indoors, do so (preferably in an air-conditioned environment). If you live nearby, try to stay indoors until the next morning.

If you are a person with asthma who simply can’t keep yourself away from a good fireworks display, you should consider using a filter mask (NIOSH-approved N95), to keep particulate matter out of your airways, and make sure you have your rescue inhaler with you.

If you are a person in good health, then your immediate health risk in being exposed to fireworks appears quite minimal. On the other hand, we really don’t know what the long-term consequences might be (if any) of breathing the array of toxic metals and other airborne substances produced by fireworks explosions. This is highly unlikely to be good for you. So it seems prudent to view fireworks displays from a distance, to minimize your exposure. At the very least, experiencing teary eyes and an acrid odor means you are standing in the worst of it—and you should think about moving to a different location.

A Word From Verywell

Fireworks displays fill the air with a substantial amount of pollution, and that pollution includes some very nasty substances. Still, at this point, the medical problems proven to be caused by exposure to this pollution seem limited to people who have pre-existing cardiopulmonary conditions, particularly asthma. If you have one of these conditions you should try to avoid being nearby, and preferably go indoors when fireworks are being exploded. Everyone else should try to enjoy fireworks displays from a reasonable distance.

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