July 05, 2011

Fireworks Air Quality Alert!

Seattle after a recent fireworks show
Wake up with a little cough this morning?  Did the air in your neighborhood last night seem more like Beijing than the pristine Northwest?

It is not your imagination.   Blame FIAP-  Fireworks Induced Air Pollution

There was a decided degradation in our air quality late yesterday-- in fact, at some locations it was downright unhealthy for those of you with respiratory problems.  Last night I was on the roof of my building at the UW watching the Lake Union fireworks--by the end of the wonderful performance a huge cloud of smoke had spread over the lake and towards the city.   Scanning the horizon there was innumerable fireworks and a smoky miasma had spread over the region.   It looked a bit like Gotham City in the Batman movies.

 But what do the numbers show? Lets looks at the data!

An important parameter measured by many air quality agencies, such as the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency (PSCAA), is PM2.5 -- the concentration of particles with diameters less than 2.5 microns (millions of a meter).  Such small particles can get through our bodies first line of defense (in our nose and airways) and move deep into our lungs.  There they can irritate our air passages and  cause significant problems for those with breathing problems.

Take a look at the air quality plots from a few stations (thanks to the PSCAA who produces them!).  Their Air Quality Index is based on the PM2.5 number. (click to enlarge)

Bremerton spiked late in the day to the unhealthy category for all.

Darrington  and Lynwood was unhealthy for sensitive groups.

Lake Forest Park and Seattle's Beacon Hill got into the  moderate.

 While Puyallup and Everett were REALLY bad.

It is interesting the some locations had a minor spike in the afternoon, a break for dinner, and then a big peak when the pyromaniacs really went at it during the evening.

The EPA-sponsored AirNOW program puts out hourly maps of the Air Quality Index.  Here is one at 3:40 AM.  You can see the problem downstream of the Puget Sound area (there were northerly and northwesterly winds aloft than blew the stuff to the SE).

Editorial Section

There was a lot of concern about the Fukushima radiation a few months ago, but quite frankly the health and other ill-effects of the fireworks are far, far greater.  Not only was the air quality highly degraded last night but several kids lost fingers, one teenager was killed, a number of homes were torched, and how many dogs/cats were left shaking in a corner?  My point is that when it comes to relative risk assessment we sometimes forget that the familiar risks have more negative impact on our lives than the exotic threats that get into the media (e.g., radiation, terrorism).


  1. It seems to me such a terrible way to celebrate a country, this poisoning of the air (and the water, and the land). And of course the harm caused to people when the explosions go wrong. It's nice to know I'm not the only one who's considered that.

    My pet rabbit spent the past few days hiding in his box. I'm hoping he'll come out sometime this afternoon now that it's quiet.

  2. I suspect idling cars also contribute a bit to the localized effects. Walking from Eastlake to Ballard over the top of Lake Union last night, I was flabbergasted by the number of cars just idling while waiting to get onto feeder streets (like 41st and 45th) for I-5 or 99. Most of them didn't move an inch for 5 or 10 minutes, but only about 1 in 50 of the cars I passed would be turned off. They just sat there wasting fuel and adding to the miasma. It was a disgusting sight.

  3. @ severinus

    Yes, traffic out of Fremont was terrible - 90 minutes to get out, with all the main and side streets gridlocked.

    Did the pollution stop rising at the end of the show around 10:45, or keep rising until midnight? Maybe none of the air quality stations are close enough to the gasworks park to tell.

  4. What kills me the most about it all is that they're all... you guessed it... MADE IN CHINA!! Along with all the flashing light crap, glow necklaces, and other trash that we generate for this once-a-year party.

    Idling cars are a big part of the problem too. They let people park in the Bellevue Square garage; we foolishly joined them. We walked back over from the park with a HUGE crowd, and then waited more than an hour before even bothering to get into our car, because those that got into their cars first were just sitting there, feeling tense and miserable.

    The security guards were allowing 8 - 14 cars out per traffic-light cycle (we counted - there was nothing else to do); why there wasn't a police officer at those main lights just waving people through, I do not know. We won't park at Bellevue Square again for the fireworks, though I have to admit that otherwise, we did have a very nice time.

  5. Oh beautiful for spacious skies ... rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air .... idling diesels everywhere ... burning bunker fuel over there ... burning wood, leaves and brush how time flies ... what the h*ll with our air?... home of the brave, land of the free ... sensible people gotta flee ... the particulate mass melee ... sorreeee!

  6. Spokane doesn't have nearly as many injuries and house fires now, since fireworks are completely banned in the county. Some folks complain about the ban, but I prefer an unburned house for some strange reason.

    Which is more patriotic and American, (1) respecting property rights or (2) making lots of noise and hurting your neighbor? I'd say property rights.

  7. I would venture to guess that a significant contributor (perhaps more than cars - they produce relatively little PM2.5s) was the backyard BBQs. That might be a reasonable explanation for the pre-dinner rise.

  8. well said, well documented, well done. as a friend to dogs, i am done with the fireworks. thanks cliff, and keep up the great work.

  9. Dr. Mass:

    I like the new look.


  10. What I wonder about are the metals used in some of these fireworks, to give them their colors. Hopefully they are staying away from things like Cadmium and Beryllium - but it wouldn't surprise me if these were being used.

  11. I just have to echo Ari's sentiment...I'm glad I'm not the only person in the country who thinks about the pollution associated with this holiday. Thanks for the post, Cliff!

  12. I am beginning to hate fireworks now that I have a dog. Watching firsthand what the pets go through it is just terrible. Plus it's a stupid way to celebrate our independence by focusing on the war portion. I am forever against the fireworks from now on. Next year I will be FAR out of town for this.

  13. Yes, I completely and totally agree with all the Anti-American sentiment on here. We should just stop celebrating America's Independence Day altogether! As an American citizen, men have spent the better part of almost 3 centuries fighting for my freedom - my RIGHT to complain about a few hours of sulphuric smoke in the air one night a year! Fireworks are so dangerous, and their ability to senselessly attack unsuspecting teenagers at random is appalling! In fact, not only should we permanently ban fireworks all across this country, I think we should go so far as to ban holidays entirely! These stupid ritualistic traditions that we silly Americans practice are simply archaic and have no practical function in today's modern society. Think about the millions of man-hours of lost productivity by taking 9 days off every year for these silly holidays! Christmas, for example: think of all the trees we could be saving if we just simply banned Christmas? The Soviets did it for several decades, and their environment is so much cleaner and more pristine than ours - and their people enjoyed not having to trouble themselves or their families with quazi-mandatory imposition!

    You see, it all works out for the best... ;)

  14. @anon at 7:49

    Previous commenters were not "anti-American" in objecting to fireworks or martial celebrations.

    Instead, using American freedoms, they discussed the role of the congestion, pollution, and celebration of explosives in Fourth of July current practices. The goal is to continually improve life in America, whose forward-looking flexibility is a great asset.

    Muzzling with accusations of being unpatriotic is most often is the tool of dictatorial government lacking rational and cogent arguments.

  15. Anonymous Enough, here's a modest proposal: swap Valentine's Day and Independence Day. As it is, on Valentine's Day in order to get flowers for one's beloved they must be grown in greenhouses or in Central America and flown in. Either way, it's terrible on the carbon footprint. Then on the 4th of July, the fireworks can't start until 10:15, because it's not dark enough. That means kids who really enjoy the show don't get home and to sleep until midnight, and the next day is a workday so they must be up and in child care at the normal hour. If the fireworks were in February they could start at 7:00 PM and everyone would get to bed on time.
    Then there's the fire danger of explosives during the dry season. Swapping Valentine's and Independence Days will be great for all concerned!

  16. Don't worry, it's only strontium and dioxins.
    I hate them. Not only pets, but wildlife are also terrorized by the war-zone atmosphere that goes on all night in some neighborhoods. I don't see them going away anytime soon. Not enough anti-Americans in America I guess.

  17. I love my country so much that I'm going to celebrate by blowing off my fingers, polluting the air, sending money to China, and terrorizing animals.

    Tomorrow I'm going to show my patriotism by buying the biggest gas guzzling truck I can find and filling it with imported oil.

    Not sure about the next day. Maybe join the Tea party.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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