July 06, 2019

Fireworks and Air Quality

During the past year we have heard a great deal about the negative effects of wildfire smoke on human health, with even modest increases in small particles (PM2.5) resulting in breathing difficulties for folks with asthma, as well as generally increased mortality and morbidity.

With all this increased knowledge of the serious health effects of smoke, we need to take a serious look at the health impact of fireworks...both directly and as an initiator of wildfires.  Here is a plot of small particles in the air (PM2.5, sized of 2.5 microns or less) at Seattle.   You see the big spike?  That is July 4th.  About as bad as the particle loading during the wildfire situation last summer.

A blow-up of July 4th shows the rapid rise in the evening to a peak near midnight.
 I could show you the same thing for other major and minor cities around the region.

These surges in small particle pollution represent the direct effect of the fireworks. But it is worse than that.  A number of local wildfires have been caused by fireworks.   For example, a several hundred acre fire was started this week in Grant County (see below).
Screenshot courtesy of KOMO news.

And then there was the huge Eagle Creek Fire near the Columbia Gorge that burnt 50,000 acres over three months, defacing one of the most beautiful areas of our region.  Caused by a 15-year old kid with fireworks.

Here in the Puget Sound region alone, fireworks this year killed a 70 years old man, left a woman in critical condition, and caused dozens of serious injuries. Several homes were destroyed and dozens of people lost their homes.   The loud booms scare pets, make life miserable for thousands, and are acutely disturbing to our veterans with PTSD.

Quite honestly, it is time for a regional ban on personal fireworks and real enforcement by local police forces.   Here in Seattle, many of the parks were war zones (e.g., Mathews Beach, Carkeek, etc.).  And local police do little.  And don't forget the pollution from these devices (see below from Mathews Beach), both in terms of debris and the toxic chemical emissions.

It is time for a general ban in selling personal fireworks. 

Is it not strange, that local native American tribal groups, who speak eloquently about protecting the land and the environment, are in the business of selling these devices... including the largest and most explosive ones? Is it not equally strange that the Seattle Times, which has done many articles on important environmental issues, has a front page article praising the fireworks business?  And where  are our state's environmental leaders on this issue, such as Governor Inslee and Commissioner of Public Lands', Hilary Franz?   

There is a lot of talk about protecting our environment.   This is an area where something needs to be done.


  1. No argument with you on this. We live on 2.5 acres in Bellingham, with about 1.5 acres of trees. And potential fires around the 4th due to fireworks is always a major worry. In my retirement, my major activity seems to be taking care of the woods, including removing flammables from the forest floor and tree thinning.

    I think the main reason police are not able to do more is limited enforcement personnel, so I do not blame them.

    Americans do a lot of stupid things in the name of freedom.

  2. I couldn't agree more, Cliff! Even here in Astoria, Oregon it is like walking through a war zone with all the personal fireworks, and local police do little. I recognize that our police force has limited personnel as well, but more could be done in the weeks and months leading up to July 4th to remind folks it is prohibited and that harsh fines will be imposed . It scares kids and animals and puts lots of adults on edge- it's time for a change!

    Cannon Beach, 30 miles to the south, is very strict regarding firework use and I've heard it is a very pleasant respite from the noise. Thanks for the post!

  3. Thank you for articulating this so well Cliff Mass. I too was just shaking my head at the Seattle Times booster piece on the sale of illegal and highly dangerous fireworks. It was very upsetting to come home from work on the 4th and find my poor cat huddled in a ball underneath the couch in such an anxious state.

  4. As above - complete concurrence. I live on a mostly rural, heavily wooded island, and our fire-fighting capabilities simply could never cope with a serious fire. It's time for a serious discussion about fireworks, especially the illegal ones, followed by action.

  5. I agree with Cliff and Mac. And many of my neighbors wanted to know why folks were permitted to light fireworks in our local area, before and after July 4th, in addition to the 4th. So many questions and no one to answer.

  6. Also bizarre is the fact that many of the fireworks on the eastside are sold ostensibly as fundraisers for local churches.


    And if we need yet another reason, how can we say we 'support our veterans', yet let the PTSD-sufferers among them relive their trauma every year?

  7. Agreed - thank you. There are so many lovelier things we could all do to celebrate Independence Day rather than go full pyromaniac. I hope we see some fun new traditions that involve a lot less pollution of all kinds!

  8. Totally agree Cliff! Tired of all this mess and waste with fireworks!!

  9. Solution to this dilemma . I propose an Incredible Lazer light show . As was done at The Griffith Observatory .

  10. Fireworks and fire crackers are what we had when I was young. Fire bombs are what appeal more and more now. It's interesting that as explosions become more popular than 'showers', a typical firework term 50 years ago, we are as a nation losing touch of what happened in 1776 and the years that followed, the framework of democracy. It's as if many now just want to "blow it up".

  11. 100% agree. Time to move on past this ridiculous tradition.

  12. I can think of many good reasons to limit the sale of fireworks but this data on air quality tops them all.

  13. Its big business for those that sell Private Fireworks. A reasonable alternative for that revenue has to be proposed before banning them, otherwise these sellers will still get their day in court. Good scientific evidence and even common sense isn't enough to get a ban to stick. Especially with the Tribes who make tons of money off everyone else's bad habits. Good luck telling them that they can't sell fireworks on the reservations because "It harms the air quality". You might be better off showing them pictures of kids with their hands blown off.

    The big public displays should stay. Even if they smoke it up a bit. If you don't like it, go to the movies. The air in there is clean and the building is sound proofed.

  14. I appreciate your annual column on this subject, but until police do something about it nothing will change. Living in Chicago, it was typical to experience my windows shaking and my pets huddling beneath the beds. This goes double for my time now in Portland, since the police stand by and watch rioters regularly shut down streets and threaten civilians trying to go about their daily lives.

  15. Totally agree. Rediculous that the city of Longview allows them to be set off July 2nd, 3rd, 4th AND 5th! I guess the 4th isn't enough terror for our pets and PTSD vets.

  16. Wholeheartedly agree, and it seems your opinion is increasingly in the majority, but the minority rules. In this region, the sale of fireworks on Tribal reservations is one reason why: it's a matter of political correctness, as evidenced by the Seattle Times article.

    I've made a point of traveling elsewhere the past few years and have been in places where personal fireworks are banned, but public shows take place. That approach is about as happy a medium as one can hope for.

  17. Cliff, don't overstate the point on the Eagle Creek Fire. That brat basically committed arson in a tinder-dry forest, with only a minor assist from fireworks.

    This was the perpetrator, not the tool.

  18. Here in Port Townsend there was a laser light show this year instead of fireworks. Much better for the air!

  19. Hi Cliff,

    I enjoy your blog quite a lot.

    Of course, people suffering harm or dying as a result of unsafe use of fireworks is very sad. This was the main point of your post. But I feel the urge to pick a few nits.

    Regarding the Eagle Creek fire, I don't think it is fair to say the area was defaced. Wildfires are a very natural phenomenon in the Pacific Northwest. A burned forest is no more or less un-natural than a green forest. Prefering one over the other displays our human prejudice.

    You probably are also aware that before Europeans arrived, native Americans regularly set fires in the Willamette Valley to clear the land for agricultural purposes. First hand accounts describe scenes of devastation we would consider horrific. So maybe things haven't changed all that much.

  20. Taking away personal liberties for the sake of the whole treads on dangerous grounds. Yes, they are dangerous. So are cars, knives, and airplanes, yet we chose to continue to use them. Our inability to recycle and the horrible, real, and massive damage we do to our planet every day doesn't get much press though.

    Keep a society chained down with no means of expression or release and bad things happen. The 4th is once a year. Live a little. Just because Seattle city folk live like sardines and cherish their HOA doesn't mean the rest of us do. Ban it in your area - more power to you, but leave the rest of us to our celebrating. We'll deal with the consequences.

    Now instead of worrying about the bump on a log in the middle of the forest, let's figure out how to save our planet from all this plastic and crap we're killing it with. THAT is a real problem.

    1. As reported today by The Seattle Times and KOMO TV:

      "Harborview Medical Center in Seattle reported 36 people were injured in some way by fireworks from July 3 to 6 this year; 20 were admitted to the hospital. The hospital said of those 20, seven suffered injuries grave enough to require amputation, be it fingers or an entire hand * * *."

      This, in the name of entertainment and freedom? The injured are often children. As adults, we should know better. Cars, knives, and airplanes have utility. Entertainment is pretty low on my list of justifications.

  21. I wholeheartedly agree with Cliff Mass - both having asthma and living in a dry area, I have to stay indoors when they happen, and I'm terrified every year on the 4th that our area will burn down with a wildfire set off by some idiot with personal fireworks. All it takes is one spark, and we've already had two small wildfires this year. On an island, this could cause a lot of deaths if it happens in town and the winds are up. Enforcement on anyone setting off illegal fireworks is key. As for the people saying we can't "express ourselves" if we don't have personal fireworks: hogwash! Go to a shooting range or something. Laser light shows are fantastic; I wish we had them here. All the oystercatchers are gone due to setting off fireworks on a little island each year; used to be their breeding grounds.

  22. In Puyallup the fireworks are so bad that we normally leave every year and go somewhere else where personal fireworks are banned. This year we decided to stay because we had other plans. It was awful. No one could sleep. We had to sedate our pets. Even in the early afternoon driving around town these loud booms shook the neighborhood. I felt like we had to hunker down to weather the 4th! When I was kid, we used to go a fireworks show. It was beautiful. The night sky was lit up and we all sat on a blanket with other families and enjoyed the display. (Oh the nostalgia!)

    Cliff, I appreciate your willingness to call out people and organizations in favor of sound environmental practices when they overlook the obvious. It seems many issues like this are glossed over in favor of bigger hype, such as air quality during peak wildfire season.

  23. As someone who moved here from out of state (from a place where personal fireworks), I've always found it to be a bizarre spectacle seeing all the fireworks going off everywhere on the 4th. The church fundraisers, kids playing with these things, all the smoke in the air - it is all so weird to me. And especially so in a "liberal" place where people ostensibly are all about protecting the environment.
    I think a great alternative is the drone light shows - just as if not even more spectacular than traditional fireworks, with less sound and air pollution.

  24. So I'm going to play the devil's advocate for a minute, if only for explanation: Yes, you can go watch a professional show (which, by the way, also creates smoke and noise). But it's not just about beauty. It's about the satisfaction of participation. Would you rather watch a movie about skiing, or would you rather go skiing? Would you rather watch a love story, or create your own love story? Would you rather buy flowers or grow your own?

    For what it's worth, I think the smoke is probably less toxic than wood smoke, which is largely composed of carcinogenic tarry substances. With fireworks, it is probably mostly composed of water-soluble inorganic salts, which can act as condensation nuclei.

    I know the noise is an issue. Let's banish the Blue Angels first, then we'll talk about fireworks.


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