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Fireworks and Air Quality — Data and Recommendations

Posted on July 2nd, 2016

I have received some questions about air quality during fireworks displays and during the use of backyard fireworks like sparklers.

On July 3rd, you might see volunteers near the University of Iowa measuring fine particulate matter using handheld Airbeam sensors. The Iowa team is interested in the performance and ease of use of the monitors as educational tools. And the Iowa team is looking for interesting data to use as they develop pollution mapping software to support the CLE4R air quality education project.

Taken at 4 PM on January 15 in Iowa City Iowa, the monitor reads 13 micrograms per cubic meter of air

Taken at 4 PM on January 15 in Iowa City Iowa, the monitor reads 13 micrograms per cubic meter of air

But the activity of monitoring for particulate matter during fireworks celebrations brings on questions: (1) how much pollution is generated, and (2) what should we do about it?  A good source of information on what to do about smoke and other air pollutants can be found from the Wisconsin DNR. The key recommendations in the WDNR post are:

• To minimize the impacts from fireworks smoke, individuals should reduce or eliminate their use of personal fireworks which tend to concentrate smoke at ground level.

• Aerial displays at community events, while producing more smoke, are launched higher above ground to dissipate the smoke more completely before reaching people at ground level.

• Individuals who anticipate a health reaction to the intense smoke of fireworks displays are advised to avoid the display areas and view the fireworks from a distance.

• Those individuals who are particularly sensitive may want to consider staying indoors (especially after dark) and closing the windows.

And Dr. Stanier would add to that, officials organizing pyrotechnic displays for the public should be aware of the anticipated wind-blown movement of the smoke from the display relative to public viewing and seating areas.

Peer-reviewed scientific studies of the effect of fireworks on air quality include Seidel and Birnbaum (2015) who studied hourly concentrations of fine particular matter from hundreds of government-run monitors all over the U.S. At the average monitoring location, hourly concentrations of fine particulate matter are increased by 21 micrograms per cubic meter between 8 and 9 PM on July 4. For comparison the average concentration in Dubuque is about 10 micrograms per cubic meter. The 24-hour average concentration increases by 5 micrograms per cubic meter.

At monitors closest to fireworks displays the increases are much larger. These are significant enough to take the average monitor up one scale in the Air Quality Index scale of air quality (i.e. good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, etc.).

The fireworks also introduce metals into the fine particulate matter; they may change ozone concentrations upward (due to UV radiation) and downward (due to reactions with nitrogen oxides) as shown by Caballero (Caballero 2015). And the fireworks introduce perchlorate into the environment (Vella et al. 2015).

References

Caballero, Sandra. 2015. “Real-Time Measurements of Ozone and UV Radiation during Pyrotechnic Displays.” Aerosol and Air Quality Research. doi:10.4209/aaqr.2015.04.0204.

Seidel, Dian J., and Abigail N. Birnbaum. 2015. “Effects of Independence Day Fireworks on Atmospheric Concentrations of Fine Particulate Matter in the United States.” Atmospheric Environment 115 (August): 192–98. doi:10.1016/j.atmosenv.2015.05.065.

Vella, Alfred J., Cynthia Chircop, Tamara Micallef, and Colette Pace. 2015. “Perchlorate in Dust Fall and Indoor Dust in Malta: An Effect of Fireworks.” Science of The Total Environment 521-522 (July): 46–51. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2015.03.071.