Environmental impact of fireworks highlighted in new study as risk to health

Study shows there may be a darker side to our colourful celebrations. Source: unknown (via PickPik)
Fireworks released on Bonfire Night shown to elevate soot levels in the air by 100 times, with potential risks to public health.

By Gemma Muller | Contributor

Bonfire Night celebrations are full of colour and sparkle, but not for your health and the environment, as research shows fireworks elevate soot levels in the air by 100 times.

Soot is produced when fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass are burnt, with sources including driving cars, electricity generation, and forest fires. Scientists from University of Leeds investigated whether these particles were harmful to the environment by influencing clouds. Ice occurs naturally in clouds, but small particles of desert and soil dust, fungi, and bacteria in the air can be surrounded and frozen by supercooled water droplets, freezing clouds and potentially impacting earth’s climate.

Samples of filtered air were taken hourly on 5th November 2016 and 2017 at University of Leeds, more than 0.5 km from bonfires or firework displays to represent city air quality. The filters were washed to collect black carbon and this liquid was subjected to different temperatures to replicate atmospheric conditions. Interestingly, back carbon did not show properties of ice-nucleating particles, suggesting no effect on clouds. However, they did find extremely high levels of this pollutant in the atmosphere.

Black carbon is actually known as a climate forcing agent that warms the Earth. It absorbs sunlight and reduces reflection (albedo) when deposited on ice and snow. This work shows it not to be a source of ice-nucleating particles that buffer the world’s oceans from the warming effect of CO2.

Lead author Michael Adams, Research Fellow in Atmospheric Ice Nucleation, said

“Our measurements showed that whilst pollution emitted on Bonfire night shouldn’t have any effect on whether clouds are liquid or ice [elevated soot measurements] should be a warning to those with pre-existing health conditions”. 

This pollutant poses a serious public health problem, as their very fine size (< 2.5 µm) allows them to penetrate deep into the lungs. This not only causes respiratory diseases but can also negatively impact the cardiovascular system and cause premature death. People most at risk include those with heart or lung disease (including asthma), the elderly and young.

Research Supervisor Benjamin Murray, Professor of Atmospheric Science in Leeds’ School of Earth and Environment, said: “Bonfire Night is a massive pollution event across the UK” and “it was striking how poor air quality was” as a result of these fireworks.

Weather conditions can affect how long particles remain in the air, with winds during the 2016 experiment blowing the pollutant away within a few hours. However, in 2017 the air was relatively still and Professor Murray was

“surprised to see levels of black carbon so persistently high for so long on multiple nights.”

Soot emitted from electricity generation and oil refineries seem out of our direct control to limit. However, we can easily control our own usage of fireworks and our involvement with bonfires. It calls into question if people should be more thoughtful over their use of these pollutant producers in excess on one night, for the sake of public health.


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