Fireworks dangerous in more ways than one

Playing with a fireworks sparkler for just eight minutes is the equivalent of breathing a day’s air pollution and breaches safe levels, new research shows.

Scientists measure air quality by the amount of particulate matter, known as PM10, in the air as micrograms per unit volume of air (μg m-3), basically a cubic metre of air. Most people breathe in around 11 cubic metres of air per day. New Zealand guidelines state that the daily level of μg m-3 cannot be over 50.

Most previous studies of pollution generated by fireworks have focused on professional large-scale events but in New Zealand, personal fireworks are the most common form of celebration during Guy Fawkes.

To better understand the contribution of fireworks on local air quality, ambient PM10 sampling was conducted in the 10 days surrounding Guy Fawkes in Auckland in 2019.

Researchers used Auckland City Council air quality monitoring site at Henderson, 12km west from the central city. In addition, researchers let off a range of fireworks typically sold for Guy Fawkes celebrations including sparklers, Roman candles, ground spinners and smoke bombs.

The results over a 10-day sampling period showed personal fireworks contributed to ambient PM10 concentrations by 21.6 μg m-3 over normal levels. PM10 increased over a 12 hour period on Guy Fawkes night to 35.8 μg m-3 when normally background PM10 is 19.5 μg m-3.

The use of personal fireworks can expose consumers to PM10 concentrations much higher, up to 9510 μg m-3 from individual sparkler use under a worst-case scenario, the study, led by Dr Joel Rindelaub from the University of Auckland, showed.

Simply put, that means inhalation of sparkler emissions for just eight minutes breaches safe air quality guidelines in New Zealand which are 50 μg m-3 exposure over 24 hours.

Extremely high levels of particulate matter were observed for the green sparkler, red sparkler, blue smoke bomb, red smoke bomb, and the Buzzy Bees ground spinner in particular. These items were purchased in a set that was marketed as a “safer” alternative to large fireworks, products that would be more suitable around children and pets.

Despite this, the PM10 concentrations generated across the product range were among the largest observed, having a combined average of 5580 μg m-3.

The PM from personal fireworks contained large amounts of chlorine (Cl), which may be indicative of perchlorate oxidizers. In addition, lead (Pb) was observed in the PM generated from two of the coloured sparklers, which were marketed as “safer” alternatives to more explosive firework products.

Children are particularly at risk from pollution from sparklers as they have an increased breathed air volume per mass compared to adults.

X-ray fluorescence analysis indicated that potassium (K) and strontium (Sr) can be used as tracers for local fireworks and that arsenic (As) may be an important contaminant during Guy Fawkes.

“This study shows that pollution from fireworks over the Guy Fawkes celebrations is higher than we expected and that it can have a short but significant effect on people breathing in the fumes,” Dr Rindelaub says.

“The use of some products such as the green sparklers, red sparklers, green smoke bombs and ground spinners for less than ten minutes exceeds safe daily exposure and we think more research needs to be done to better understand the health consequences of fireworks.”

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