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Fireworks: What's in them is in you

May 20, 2013


The rockets' red glare from a fireworks show can fill onlookers with patriotism and awe but it can also fill them with a deadly stew of aluminum, strontium, dioxins and particulates.

Every year millions of tons of heavy metals and toxic substances from fireworks are dumped into our lower atmosphere and inhaled by millions of people.

Your firecrackers, skyrockets, Roman candles and, yes, even those sparklers on your child's birthday cake pose a health danger to you and your family.


Fireworks are commonly set off over oceans, lakes and rivers. But what goes up - must come down. The poisonous fallout is absorbed by vegetation, soil, ground water...and your lungs.

For fireworks and other pyrotechnics to blow up, they need to blow up something — usually a blend of charcoal and sulfur fuel. They also need potassium nitrate which is often replaced by perchlorates to speed up the explosion. These three chemicals are mixed together into gunpowder. When a spark hits gunpowder, the potassium nitrate feeds oxygen to the fire, helping it quickly burn the charcoal-sulfur fuel. This produces volumes of hot, rapidly expanding solids and gases that can be used to fire a bullet, explode an artillery shell or launch a Roman candle.

From the gunpowder that fuels their flight to the metallic compounds that color their explosions, fireworks contain hormone-disrupting and carcinogenic (cancer causing)substances that release toxic clouds of lung-cloggng smoke and plastic debris.

In addition to gunpowder, fireworks are packed with heavy metals and other toxins that produce their sparkling shower of colors. Scientists know that these metals can wreak havoc in the human body.


For the color effect of fireworks, toxic heavy metals like barium, aluminum, lead, mercury salts, antimony, copper, and strontium can be used in firework compositions. Some toxic elements are supposedly not used in fireworks anymore like lead compounds, chlorates, and mercury as mercurous chloride (calomel), but some firework chemical outlets still sell some of these ingredients.

Many fireworks are imported from China which is scary because they have a proven track record of cutting corners by using cheaper, more toxic materials. Some of the metals also have radioactive isotopes. There is a list of prohibited toxic chemicals in the government standards but the program is voluntary for manufacturers and importers. Firework shipments that pass standards only assure that one random sample from the lot has been tested and met all requirements.

Strontium (red): This soft, silvery-yellow metal turns red when it burns, is extremely reactivewith both air and water, and can be radioactive. Some strontium compounds dissolve in water, and others move deep into soil and groundwater; radioactive strontium has a half-life of 29 years. Radioactive strontium can damage bone marrow, cause anemia, prevent blood from clotting correctly and is mainly a threat to children because it can impair their bone growth. 

 Aluminum (white): Since aluminum is the most abundant metal in Earth's crust — and one of humanity's most widely used — avoiding exposure is almost impossible. Virtually all food, water, air and soil contain some amount of aluminum — the average adult eats about 7 to 9 milligrams of the silvery-white metal every day in food. It's generally safe at these levels, but it can affect the brain and lungs at higher concentrations. People and animals exposed to large amounts of aluminum have performed poorly on mental and physical tests, and some studies suggest aluminum exposure may lead to Alzheimer's disease.

 Copper (blue)Fireworks' blue hues are produced by copper compounds. These aren't very toxic on their own, but the copper jump-starts the formation of dioxins when perchlorates in the fireworks burn. Dioxins are vicious chemicals that don't occur naturally and aren't intentionally produced anywhere; they only exist as unwelcome byproducts of certain chemical reactions, one of which happens in blue fireworks. The most noted health effect of dioxin exposure is chloracne, a severe skin disease with acne-like lesions mostly on the face and upper body. Dioxin doesn't stop there, though — the World Health Organization has identified it as a human carcinogen, and it's also been shown to disrupt hormone production and glucose metabolism.

• Barium (green)Fish and other aquatic organisms can accumulate barium, which means it can move up the food chain. The silvery-white metal naturally bonds with other elements to form a variety of compounds that all have different effects — none are known to be carcinogenic, but they can cause gastrointestinal problems and muscular weakness when exposure exceeds EPA drinking water standards. Symptoms may include vomiting, diarrhea, breathing trouble, changes in blood pressure, numbness around the face, general muscle weakness and cramps. High levels of barium exposure can lead to changes in heart rhythm, paralysis or death.


Perchlorates in high enough doses limit the human thyroid gland's ability to take iodine from the bloodstream, potentially resulting in hypothyroidism.

The smoke from fireworks contains particulate matter that can get lodged in people's lungs causing an immediate danger for those with asthma or chemical sensitivities. Air-quality monitors spike for about three hours after a fireworks show.


In 2000-2004, fireworks started an estimated 32,300 reported fires per year in the USA, including 2,700 building and vehicle fires. More fires are reported on the 4th of July than any other day of the year.

The most eco-friendly alternative to fireworks is to forgo explosions altogether and go to a community drum circle, a parade, a laser light show or electronic pyrotechnics which don't use explosives. Electronic blasts can form a canopy up to 25 feet in the air that rain down glitter, confetti, rose petals or even candy in stead of toxic metals.


The next time you are about to set off or buy some cheap fireworks or even attend an outdoor fireworks display, ask yourself if a few minutes of cheap thrills is worth the toxic consequences.

Toxic Element

Toxic Effect


Contact dermatitis, bioaccumulation

Antimony sulfide

Toxic smoke, possible carcinogen

Arsenic compounds

Toxic ash can cause lung cancer,
 skin irritation and wart formation.

Barium Nitrate

Poisonous. Fumes can irritate respiratory tract. Possible
 radioactive fallout. [4]

Copper compounds

Polychlorinated dioxins and dibenzofurans. [5] Can
bioaccumulate. Cancer risk.

Hexachlorobenzene (HCB) [5]

Persistent environmental toxin.
Is a carcinogen, mutagen and a reproductive hazard [13].

Lead Dioxide / Nitrate / Chloride

Bioaccumulation, developmental danger for kids & unborn babes,
 may remain airborne for days, poisonous to plants & animals

Lithium compounds

Toxic and irritating fumes when burned

Mercury (Mercurous chloride)

Toxic heavy metal. Can bioaccumulate.

Nitric oxide

Toxic by inhalation. Is a free

Nitrogen dioxide

Highly toxic by inhalation.
SIDS risk [8].


Greenhouse gas that attacks &
irritates lungs

Perchlorate -
Ammonium & Potassium

Can contaminate ground &
surface waters, can cause thyroid problems in humans & animals

Potassium Nitrate

Toxic dusts, carcinogenic
sulfur-coal compounds

Strontium compounds

Can replace calcium in body. Strontium chloride is slightly

Sulfur Dioxide

Acid rain from sulphuric acid
affects water sources, vegetation
& causes property damage. SIDS risk


A case study has shown that within 1 hour of fireworks displays levels of Strontium in the air increased 120 times, Magnesium 22 times, Barium 12 times, Potassium 11 times, and Copper 6 times more than the amount present in the air before the event. Strontium was found to be the best tracer in this study because it measured very high during the event and much lower at other time intervals which indicated that it was mostly a result of the fireworks display. [9]

Another study found that firework events brought air pollution spikes in suspended particles, Nitric oxide (NO), Sulfur dioxide (SO2), and created and dispersed an aerosol cloud hosting a range of metallic elements. The researchers found that although the "recreational pollution" from fireworks is transient in nature, the pollutants are highly concentrated and add significantly to the total yearly metal emissions and the particles are on average small enough to be easily inhaled which poses a health risk to sensitive individuals. [10]

Researchers have found that fireworks can create a burst of ozone which is an extremely reactive greenhouse gas molecule that can attack and irritate the lungs. The ozone is believed to be caused by ultraviolet light released by chemicals in fireworks... which in this study were sparklers. [7]

A 3 week study in London recorded two major festivals celebrated with pyrotechnic events and found that they were marked by increased gas phase pollutant levels of Nitric oxide (NOx) and Sulfur dioxide (SO2), elevated PM mass concentrations, as well as trace metal concentrations, specifically Strontium (Sr), Magnesium (Mg), Potassium (K), Barium (Ba), and Lead (Pb). These changes in air quality were then related to the oxidative activity of daily PM samples by assessing their capacity to drive the oxidation of physiologically important lung antioxidants. Because of the elevated PM concentrations caused by firework activity and the increased oxidative activity of this PM source, the researchers believe more work needs to be done in examining if exposure to firework derived PM is related to acute respiratory outcomes. [11]

Another study from 2010 attempts to estimate the probable health impact of exposure to the pollution caused by fireworks. Using risk data from epidemiological studies conducted in USA, they estimated that when exposed to air pollution from fireworks the relative risk of cardiovascular mortality would increase as high as 125.11% and the relative risk for cardiovascular morbidity was found to increase 175.16% over a regular winter day. The authors conclude that further studies on control measures for firework displays are needed to help reduce the probable health hazards to the general public. [12]


  • Write, call, or meet your local officials and tell them your concerns about outdoor air pollution and noise pollution from fireworks.
  • The Clean Air Act permits governments to enact laws relating to the prevention and control of outdoor air pollution.
  • Pollutants discharged by fireworks also need to be regulated in accordance with the Clean Water Act. Recently some environmental groups have caused the cancellation of some fireworks shows held over water, after threatening organizers with a Clean Water Act lawsuit for lacking the appropriate permits.
  • Boycott outdoor fireworks displays and encourage others to do the same.
  • Educate others by sharing the pollution dangers of fireworks.


[1] "Fireworks." National Fire Protection Association, April 2007

[2] American Fireworks Standards Laboratory Standards, September 2006, page I

[3] Steinhauser, Georg. "Heavy metals from pyrotechnics in New Years Eve snow." Atmospheric Environment Volume 42, Issue 37, December 2008

[4] Steinhauser G and Musilek A. "Do pyrotechnics contain radium?" Environ Res. Lett. 4 034006 July-September 2009

[5] O. Fleischer. "Release of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans by setting off fireworks." Chemosphere Volume 39, Issue 6, September 1999

[6] Russell, Michael S. The Chemistry of Fireworks. 2000

[7] Attri, Arun K. "Microclimate: Formation of Ozone by Fireworks." Nature Volume 411, June 28, 2001

[8] Dales, Robert. "Air Pollution and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome." Pediatrics Vol. 113 No. 6 June 2004

[9] Vecchi, Roberta. "The Impact of Fireworks on Airborne Particles." to appear in Atmospheric Environment

[10] Moreno, Teresa. "Recreational atmospheric pollution episodes: Inhalable metalliferous particles from firework displays." Atmospheric Environment Volume 41, Issue 5, February 2007

[11] Godri KJ, Green DC. "Particulate Oxidative Burden Associated with Firework Activity." Environmental Science & Technology, October 1, 2010

[12] B. Thakur. "Air pollution from fireworks during festival of lights (Deepawali) in Howrah, India - a case study." Atmósfera, Vol 23, No 4, 2010

[13] "Hexachlorobenzene (HCB) in Fireworks - Guidance Note" The Environment Agency, September 2010

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