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O say can you see...and smell (?)


I hope all my fellow Americans enjoyed our 4th of July celebration this past weekend. It’s always been a fun mid-summer celebration to me, but over the years as I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many corners of the world I’ve become more and more conscious of how lucky I am to live in this country. July 4th gives us a chance to step back and reflect on all the good that is America—it’s not perfect, but I personally think it’s the best country ever put on the planet.


So when most people think of July 4th what immediately comes to mind is fireworks. While fireworks have been around for more than 2,000 years, the tradition of setting them off to celebrate America’s Independence begins back in 1777 in Philadelphia. Fireworks on the 4th of July really became popular after the War of 1812, and in 1870 Congress established Independence Day as an official holiday.


Today you don’t have to go far to see fireworks on July 4th. Cities, towns, county fairs, and even backyards have some pretty impressive displays. And while they’re fun—especially with some good John Philip Sousa marches to go along with them—not many people think of the air pollution that accompanies them.


And that air pollution, while short-lived, is not trivial. Fireworks put a lot of PM2.5 in the air, along with toxic metals such as lead, titanium, strontium, and copper (the metals are used to give fireworks their color—for instance, when exposed to high temperatures strontium makes red and copper makes blue). It’s not uncommon to get ground-level one-hour PM2.5 concentrations greater than 100 µg/m3 during fireworks shows (compared to the 24-hour PM2.5 NAAQS of 35 µg/m3). Of course, those high one-hour levels drop back down as soon as the fireworks shows end, but during a show you can have an hour or two of very high fine particulate matter concentrations in the air.


If you’re sensitive to air pollution or have asthma it’d be a good idea to keep your windows closed and the air conditioning on when fireworks are going off. Masks certainly would help as well, and going to a public show (where you’re further away from the fireworks) would be better for your lungs than a backyard show.


Looking to the future, I wouldn’t be surprised if big fireworks shows get phased out in favor of drones. With the positioning and the colors of the drones synchronized to music you can do some pretty neat effects—without the dangers of gunpowder and the accompanying air pollution. The Seminole Coconut Creek Casino in Florida used some drones in their show this year—followed by traditional fireworks. Check it out here.

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