4th of July fireworks drastically reduce air quality in the United States: meteorologists

What would the 4th of July be without fireworks? It turns out much healthier. Studies across the United States have shown a drastic drop in air quality during the red glare of the first rocket and the bomb burst in the air.

“If you happen to be downwind of a big fireworks display, it’s very dangerous,” Paul Walsh, meteorologist and managing director of BreezoMeter.com. “Fireworks also release fine particles, which include what are called heavy metals…which are really bad to breathe.”

Dangerous air quality levels persist through the morning until the afternoon of the 5th. For most of the United States, the wind dies down overnight as the sun sets. Then the earth begins to radiate the heat it has absorbed from the sun. Warm air (less dense than cold air) rises in the atmosphere as denser cold air settles on the surface.

Cold air traps pollutants like smoke and heavy metal particles on the surface where we breathe it in. This is called a temperature inversion. The hot air from the top level is like a lid on our atmospheric pot, keeping everything steady and still. The atmosphere needs wind to mix stagnant air or sunshine to heat the ground for warm thermals to improve air quality.

The poor air quality persists for hours after the fireworks go off.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

“Last year in New York on July 4, right after the fireworks, it was the third most polluted city in the world,” Walsh quoted data published by IQAir. “And in Los Angeles, they had dangerous air conditions that lasted for a while in a large area around Los Angeles. Even sparklers release toxic gases.

Air quality officials for the greater Los Angeles area have already issued warnings for 4th and 5th.

“Breathing fine particles can lead to a wide variety of cardiovascular and respiratory health effects such as heart attacks, worsening of asthma, decreased lung function, coughing or difficulty breathing and can lead to premature death in people with heart or lung disease,” the South Coast Air Quality Management District said in a news release.

New York, a city with relatively good air quality, averages 3,628 out of 6,475 cities, as IQAir.com reports. One is the most polluted and 6,475 is the cleanest city. So, on a regular basis, New York does better than half the cities in the world, except for the 4th of July.

The American Pyrotechnics Association reports that the United States set off 50.6 million pounds of professional fireworks and 102 million pounds of consumer/backyard fireworks in 2020. Much of it is taken from the air we breathe.

Fireworks are largely made up of gunpowder, chemical dyes, metals, paper and plastics. The firework explodes and releases gases and fine particles into the air with smoke, color and noise. Some of the gas and particles settle on the surface or are carried by the wind to another city.

Copper, lead, sulfur, cadmium, aluminum, manganese, arsenic, iron dust, strontium, barium, antimony and benzene toluene are just some of the metals and dangerous salts released by fireworks.

In the United States, £50.6 million of professional fireworks and £102 million of consumer/backyard fireworks were set off in 2020.
Getty Images for Macy’s, Inc.

Researchers in India found that airborne toxins like particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone remained in the air for five days after the fireworks at the festival of Diwali. This level was more than 2,800% higher than the limit set by the World Health Organization.

A Minneapolis study showed that particles that can be inhaled and accumulate in the lungs or bloodstream increased by 180-600% on the 4th compared to levels in the evening of the 3rd. Carbon monoxide levels increased by 32%.

A 1975 study published in the National Library of Medicine found a 113% increase in treatment for respiratory disease during fireworks.

Protect yourself and your family

Local air quality officials and the CDC have several recommendations for staying away from pollution:

  • Sit upwind for the fireworks staging area. (The breeze blows the smoke away from you.)
  • Watch at least 500 feet from the show.
  • Try to wear an N-95 mask or better, an N-99 mask, if you are at the show.
  • Young children, older Americans, and anyone with an underlying respiratory condition should consider enjoying the show on TV or through a closed window. Replace the HVAC filter before the fourth. Run air purifiers at high speed.
  • Keep an eye on your local air quality levels.

New York Post

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