The Next Generation of Fireworks May All Be Green

The Next Generation of Fireworks May All Be Green

Despite being a centerpiece of celebrations the world over, fireworks displays often release toxic chemicals into the environment, from heavy metals to perchlorate.
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An article published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology in 2009 found that, following a fireworks display, the amount of perchlorate in nearby bodies of water could increase by anywhere from 24 to 1,068 times the amount present before the fireworks, and that it takes 20 to 80 days for the chemical levels to subside.

In an article published in the Earth Island Journal in 2000, author Gar Smith writes:

In addition to the charges of blackpowder (containing carcinogenic sulfur-coal compounds) that send skyrockets airborne and blast them into patterns of glowing sparks, fireworks contain a number of toxic metals that produce a range of dazzling colors. Strontium produces blazing reds, copper compounds burn blue, magnesium, titanium and aluminum create brilliant white sparks. Sodium chloride produces orange-yellow fire, boric acid burns green, potassium and rubidium compounds produce purples and burning lithium glows red. Glittering greens are produced by radioactive barium.

During the Stockholm Water Festival in 1996, air pollutant levels were measured before and after the fireworks display. Levels of airborne arsenic were found to be twice normal, while levels of mercury, cadmium, lead, copper, zinc and chromium were as high as 500 times above normal.

But researchers are developing a new generation of fireworks that can shine just as brightly without having the same impact on the environment or human health. In an article in Chemical & Engineering News, a publication of the American Chemical Society, Bethany Halford says these nitrogen-rich formulas also use fewer color-producing chemicals, dramatically cutting down on the amount of heavy metals used and lowering their potentially toxic effects.

And new firework formulas can replace perchlorate -- which has been shown to pollute nearby bodies of water [PDF] -- with nitrocellulose or other nitrogen-rich materials, allowing them to produce less smoke and burn cleaner than perchlorate-based fireworks.

Although some big events have put them to use, higher cost for lower impacts remains a barrier for wider adoption of these greener fireworks, according to the article.

Fireworks photos CC-licensed by Flickr users mugley and A Million to One.