Earlier this week, July 4, 2017, was the nation’s 241st birthday. In Washington, DC, and in countless other places across the country, the event was celebrated with dazzling fireworks displays. My childhood days are long behind me. But, a good fireworks display still evokes awe and gives me goose bumps. Although fireworks are synonymous with the 4th of July, Americans are not alone in their appreciation of fireworks. All across the globe—from Europe, to Asia, to South America and back again—fireworks are a universal symbol of celebration.
Although a source of great joy, fireworks do not come without cost. For one thing, they can be physically dangerous. A year does not go by without reports of someone being injured by malfunctioning fireworks or, worse, by failing to use safe practices when discharging fireworks.
More to the point of this blog, fireworks also are a source of air pollution. This is not a big surprise. Fireworks are propelled by solid fuel, which is burned during ascent. Similarly, the spectacular noise, light and colors produced by fireworks are the result of the combustion of a wide variety of chemical compounds. A cloud of smoke invariably remains after a fireworks show.
A quick Google search shows that air pollution from fireworks has been extensively studied. For example, just over a year ago, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a study that examined the effect of fireworks on levels of ambient fine particulate matter (as measured by nearby EPA-approved PM2.5 ambient monitors). The authors concluded that PM2.5 levels spike in the hours after a fireworks display: “Average concentrations over the 24-hour period starting at 8 p.m. on July 4 are 42 percent greater than on the days preceding and following the holiday.” The authors note that levels are high enough in some places that the 24-hour National Ambient Air Quality Standard for PM2.5 may be exceeded.
For virtually any other source of air pollution, this typically would mean that the state would be required to regulate the emissions to the degree necessary to ensure attainment of the NAAQS. But, 4th of July fireworks displays are among the few categories of sources covered by the US Environmental Protection Agency’s “exceptional events” rule.¹ Under this rule, ambient air quality concentrations of NAAQS pollutants attributable to fireworks displays that are “significantly integral to traditional national, ethnic, or other cultural events including, but not limited to, July Fourth celebrations” may be excluded from consideration in determining NAAQS compliance. In lieu of regulating, NOAA reports that EPA advises “that people who are considered sensitive to particle pollution try to limit their exposure by watching fireworks from upwind – or as far away as possible.”
This is a rare and refreshing display of pragmatism in the face of conflicting societal values. On the one hand, fireworks bring joy and are a universal means of celebration. On the other hand, fireworks are an undeniable source of potentially harmful air pollution. Rather than squelch the joy in the interest of providing absolute protection, EPA has sensibly abstained from regulating and, instead, offered common-sense advice—if you are worried, stay away. This is a model that should be replicated.