The 4th of July is approaching and you know what that means, right? Fireworks. Of course, this is not the only celebration where fireworks are employed to mark the occasion. They are used in many festivities, from independence days around the world to festivals and New Year’s Eve. Although commercial fireworks are meant to be strictly tested before being distributed, a new study conducted by New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine reveals that some commercially available fireworks contain dangerous levels of lead and other toxins.
With some counties are still planning to hold the usual July 4th fireworks celebrations and the complaints of illegal fireworks soaring, the suggestion that long term exposure to fireworks may be damaging is quite alarming.
The idea for the study was born several years ago, when Terry Gordon, a professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine at NYU Langone Health, was watching a Disney fireworks special with his son. The latter suggested that testing the fireworks for toxins could be a good idea for a high school project. “We bought about a dozen types of fireworks and we spent the summer setting them off in chambers in our laboratory at NYU, and collected the particles and then tested them on cells for toxicity," Gordon explained in a statement for Insider.
The high school research project eventually morphed into a project for Gordon and his graduate students. The team of researchers bought 12 types of fireworks, available to anyone at popular retail stores. The experiment itself was similar to that which Gordon conducted with his son; the fireworks were set off in a stainless steel chamber, then the particles small enough to reach the lungs were extracted and tested on rodents and samples of human tissue.
Two of the 12 brands were found to have harmful levels of lead. Gordon, the author of the study has said he was ‘shocked’ to find this level of toxicity in the samples. “There's an American Fireworks Standards Laboratory, and they look like they have a pretty good system for testing fireworks for toxic elements, so I never imagined that manufacturers might be putting lead in consumer fireworks to produce a certain color or sound."
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There may be cardiovascular and pulmonary effects associated with long term exposure to fireworks. Ethically, researchers cannot perform studies where some people are exposed to fireworks and some aren’t. However, Gordon believes his study is a basis for concern, and he hopes to study people who are already attending fireworks shows and examine whether they were contaminated with lead, or had a cardiovascular reaction.
To create the bright colors of fireworks, small pieces of metal are burned, which causes a chemical reaction that gives off a flash of color and light. Yellow fireworks use sodium nitrate to achieve their color, while red fireworks use strontium. So if the fireworks industry has such strict guidelines for keeping toxic metals out of fireworks, how did unsafe products still end up on store shelves?
The honest answer is the volume of demand simply doesn’t allow every imported batch of fireworks to be properly tested. In the United States, for example, an estimated 258 pounds of fireworks are bought annually. Most of them are imported from China and there are hundreds of different kinds. Testing every single manufacturer is nearly impossible, so some imported fireworks slip through the cracks.
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There are safer ways to make fireworks, according to Gordon, by using compressed air instead of explosives. This method prevents explosions near the ground, contaminating the Everglades with chemicals.
If you don’t want to miss the fireworks action this 4th of July, the best way to keep safe is to pay attention to the direction of the wind. “Let kids enjoy it but make sure they're upwind," is Gordon’s advice. There is no reason not to enjoy the celebrations, but do stay safe!