Life Science: Air Pollution And Our Beloved Fourth Of July

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Everyone thinks of the fourth of July as this wonderful wholesome affair where you’re together with family and friends celebrating our country, it’s all very patriotic, or maybe you just like fireworks and could care less about anything else. Either way, a ton of fireworks are launched in this country on that night, and along with all of the other hazards that come with the fourth, many don’t think about our air quality.

I mean sure, we all know that the chance of fires are at an all time high that night, and that there’s a spike in the number of pets that run away due to the fear fireworks instill in them. Also the fact that about 690 people have to go to the ER every year on that day and about seven people die due to fireworks per year. But do we really know what happens to us health-wise? Air pollution levels spike to about 42 percent higher than any other day during peak firework hours (between 9 and 10 pm). When people think of air pollution they think of car exhaust and large factories but the part that really matters are the particles you can’t see. This air pollution spike is due to excess particulate matter which are little dust, dirt and soot particles floating around.

Particulate matter can stick around for hours, even days depending on the degree of it. Some parts never fully decompose either, hanging around in the environment forever, poisoning all it comes into contact with. Fireworks are made of heavy metals, including lead, mercury salts, copper, aluminum, and barium. This gives them their vibrant colors. These elements also do not naturally occur in the air in such high concentrations during the other months of the year. These heavy metal concentrations, and not to mention the physical trash from fireworks that is left behind, effect the ecosystem as well as our lungs as all of that waste cycles through the air and enters our water systems. Many of the metals used to create fireworks are mined from mountains also destroying wildlife habitats.

As far as what it does to our bodies, it can cause coughing and wheezing with long exposure and for people with pre-existing conditions, such as people with lung or heart disease, it could even cause death. Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) performed a study where they looked at 315 sites across the country and found that ten of the sites had air qualities that were deemed unsafe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Therefore, it varies by location and which direction the wind blows. If you’re in a larger city such as Los Angeles, Chicago, or Seattle, the amount of particulate matter most likely reaches above the EPA’s safety threshold.

In 2017 Los Angeles’s fine particle pollution jumped to over eight times the daily average, from 35 to 300 micrograms per cubic meter, and that number remained until the following morning. However, this is not just a Los Angeles problem. Americans use 285 million pounds of fireworks on the fourth of July. That means for every person in this country, even children, that is a pound of fireworks per person. That’s 10 times the number of fireworks we used in 1976 and is just such insane degree of firework usage. Therefore, only recently have we had to deal with these air quality issues. The EPA discusses that this isn’t detrimental by any means, unless you have pre-existing conditions but it still isn’t a very healthy lifestyle to maintain.

 Not to say that fireworks are the only thing that produces excessive levels of particulate matter. I mean we also get it from wildfires, high storm winds, and volcanoes, but fireworks are definitely the most avoidable.  The celebration doesn’t have to be all bad though. In Sydney, Australia they shoot fireworks to celebrate but they do it sustainably. Their most famous display is 100 percent carbon neutral, meaning it doesn’t cause an increase of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The fireworks are made from biodegradable paper and are of professional grade.

This method leaves very little chemicals or waste in the air and they purchase carbon offsets to make up for the rest. Carbon offsets are basically a way to compensate for the pollution you produce. It’s a program that allows you to send money to businesses that work towards clean and renewable energy projects, effectively making your carbon footprint smaller.

It’s really hard to answer the question of how to avoid this type of pollution in the United States. People downwind of the fireworks will receive the brunt of the bad air, but it does linger for days all throughout the area. And let’s not even get started on the pollution during New Years for the same reason. Whether you care about the meaning of the holiday or just the fireworks, know how much the air around you is diminished by these celebrations and that maybe leaving it to just the professionals isn’t such a bad idea.