Monday, July 6, 2020

The Jury is In: Personal Fireworks Alone Can Cause Dangerous Air Pollution

This July Fourth we answered an important question:  if most U.S. community fireworks displays are cancelled (because of COVID-19) might July 4th air quality be substantially improved?

We now know the answer:  air quality was very poor the evening of July 4th and the immediate morning hours, in some locations as bad or worse than previous years.  Personal fireworks are clearly the mainstay of the air quality disaster of July 4th.

Let me prove this to you.  Consider an image that will shock and awe...but in a bad way... showing the EPA Air Quality Index (AQI) at 4:30 AM Sunday (July 5) morning (PDT).  Just scary.  The U.S. really stands out with reds and even purples--from unhealthy to hazardous (the EPA AQI scale is shown below).  Some of the worst air quality in the world.  Very bad for folks with asthma and respiratory/heart issues.

AQI Map Courtesy of PurpleAir.com


Now, let's zoom into the U.S. for the same time.  The West Coast is particularly bad, with some locations getting into the hazardous zone (301 or more on the AQ scale).  No issues in Canada.


Some areas in Los Angeles were crazy bad, with several locations getting above 400.  Such values will make even healthy people feel unwell.  Such levels can be sickening in vulnerable people.


Moving to Puget Sound at 4:15 AM, unhealthy conditions (red and darker) were widespread, but not as bad as LA.


And turning to a summary for the Seattle metro region, one can view the extraordinary degradation to hazardous level that occurred after 10 PM July 4th.


No wonder sunrise this morning in Seattle brought a smoky haze, as viewed by the Seattle PanoCam.
Not a morning to take a deep breath.


An important issue is how this year, without big community events, compares to last year, when the usual community fireworks displays were taking place.  

Consider the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency site in South Park (south Seattle).  Below are plots of concentrations of PM2.5--small particles that can move deep into your lungs--for this year and last.  The values last year got to roughly 102 (micrograms per cubic meter of hour, one-hour average values.   Clearly in the unhealthy range.
This year?  It went even higher... around 120.
This comparison was no outlier.  2020 was worse than 2019 at many locations.

Thus, a reasonable conclusion is that personal fireworks and other home-based activities (like barbecuing) are a far more important source of July Fourth air pollution than the community displays.

Why was this year worse than last?  The meteorology was favorable, but perhaps more important was that personal firework usage were up--at least the media were reporting this.    And the personal fireworks bought at local "boom cities" appears to be larger and higher flying than in the past.  Certainly, at my location in north Seattle the explosive concussions were the worst I have experienced and the rockets going up from Mathews Beach park were extraordinary--some almost professional level.  My little dog was terrorized.


A question that is often asked is why don't Seattle Police enforce the fireworks ban in the city on July 4th?  Air quality declines to very unhealthy levels, animals are scared, homes and apartments are set afire (like the apartment complex in Tacoma), and kids are getting hurt.  Maybe this is an issue for which we need more police, not less.




23 comments:

  1. Thank you for this post! I live in Bellingham. Fireworks are outlawed in the city and yet where I live we heard them all around and our cats were in the same condition as your dog. Other neighbors complained I have heard but, like Seattle, I do not think there was much in the way of enforcement.

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  2. The data is interesting but not particularly surprising. It was, anecdotally, quite smoky around my location in NW Bellingham the night of the 4th and into the morning of the 5th. It also did seem, again anecdotally, that there were more personal fireworks in and around my location this year than in years past.

    However, given the general response of the country to the ongoing, and far more lethal, public health crisis, it seems exceedingly unlikely that fireworks will come to be treated as a serious public health issue in the near future.

    I would imagine that many, maybe most, municipalities (almost certainly those municipalities in which most of the state's population resides) nominally prohibit the use of personal fireworks - Bellingham does - but given how widespread the use of fireworks is, it's practically impossible to enforce the bans.

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  3. Cliff,

    Local fireworks were much worse this year for my family and pet. It did seem like a more professional level of fireworks were used.

    I don't have the answer because I have always enjoyed fireworks. But, in the future decision makers need to balance the celebration with potential harm.

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  4. The elephant in the room here, is the sale of "real" fireworks on the local Indian reservations...these fireworks are illegal--but the most fun to use...so there seems to be a couple of double standards working here...most all areas of W. Wash ban the actual use of fireworks, but do not enforce the law...and illegal fireworks, that can only be used legally on reservation property, are allowed to be bought, by the ton, and driven into the surrounding towns and cities, where they are set off, without little police interference...I am on the fence about this situation...I love fireworks, but now have lung-related health problems...another conundrum of Life!

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  5. Some of the personal displays rivaled municipal displays of the past. Probably some families with deep pockets took initiative to assure there would be a big fireworks show.

    Its just another facet of the age of Covid (and Trump). Add it to the list of mandates law enforcement refuse to enforce either due to political reasons or for the sake of not wanting to expose officers to potential infection. Most law enforcement probably won't be enforcing the mask mandate either which kicks off today for those same reasons, and it will fall on businesses to confront customers who refuse to comply. Just what a meagerly paid retail worker wants for the highlight of their day....

    We 'Mericans prefer our country remains morally broken and perpetually dysfunctional apparently, so long as we get to do what we want.

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    1. "We 'Mericans prefer our country remains morally broken and perpetually dysfunctional apparently, so long as we get to do what we want."

      Which essentially comes down to bright flashing lights, loud noises (including vulgar "music" pounded into our heads), and a six-pack of beer.

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  6. Every year we have this discussion. Noise and smoke pollution for a few days vs. personal freedoms. Thankfully in a couple days we'll get back to more interesting topics.

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  7. Don't forget that, Nishinoshima volcano, out there in the Pacific has been pumping a prodigious amount of SO2 into the (mainly) Lower Atmosphere since early June, although there is now a significant stratospheric plume as well! Washington State is directly in the line of fire (no pun intended!) to receive its product. I would posit that the volcano has been at least some of the source for the haze observed since that time.

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    1. Thanks for the heads up. I’ve been noticing an uptick of particulates in my local area and wondered if something else was going on.

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  8. Occasionally, Cliff and I agree on something and this is one of those times. The illegal personal fireworks were absolutely terrible this year, the worst since we moved to Bellingham 4 years ago. The sound and smell was awful and made us feel like prisoners in our home. Our usual primary worry is fire as we live on 2.5 acres, much of which has woods. Luckily, it has been damp. Because we are outside of city limits, county sheriff coverage is not very good here, so it is a waste of time reporting the extremely high level of activity over about 3 days, particularly the Fourth. The very high noise of individual firecracks is a strong indicator that these were likely illegal firecrackers as well.

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  9. We have had decent results with a "Thundershirt" for our small dog. They're expensive and require a Mechanical Engineering degree to put on, but the dog seems calmer.

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  10. It was a fantastic 4th, can't wait till next year.

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  11. The police can not enforce fireworks bans if even 10% of the population chooses to ignore them. There will simply be too many people to arrest. This is, literally, what "consent of the governed" means.

    I grew up in CT where fireworks were 100% illegal, but the personal displays were at least as common as they are here in Washington. If the people choose to ignore a law, is it even a law anymore?

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  12. You would need to bring in the National Guard and have all officers on duty, rather than many home with their families, to properly enforce a fireworks ban on the "front end." Mountlake Terrace PD had a few officers driving around stopping for a minute here and there to warn people "just don't do it in the street." And on the "back end" cities can't really ban the tribes from selling fireworks either--not even sure whether the state can.

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    1. Correct, the state has no jurisdiction over the tribes selling fireworks. To stop that would require a ban at the federal level. Since fireworks sales produce lots of revenues for tribes nationwide, banning fireworks at a federal level is not going to be politically popular.

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  13. Very informative post…although I think an even larger concern would be the fire hazard posed by so many personal fireworks shows going off in so MANY MANY locations. Did you see the live tv shot taken on the night of the 4th showing the points of light all over Seattle from personal fireworks? I am shocked that there weren’t more fires. Maybe the cooler weather we have been having was a factor in keeping things under control. Can you imagine if things had gotten out of hand….fire departments would be stressed to the maximum. We humans do tend to burn down our cities: think London, Chicago, San Francisco. It was a night of booms, pops, whistles in my neighborhood. I think some folks wanted to do a neighborhood firework display to make up for missing the big show. I wish they would leave the much more impressive fireworks shows to the professionals. Honestly, I think we dodged a potentially devastating bullet. I sound like an old complaining lady and I don’t want pour water on anyone’s fun, but did any officials question this? A long time ago (it now seems) I paid my way through college by working on fire crews in the summer. Yes, one smoldering cigarette butt can burn down hundreds of acres. You can literally see a burn pattern fanning out from the point of ignition.

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  14. Canceling the public fireworks shows was a bad idea it caused alot of people to buy their own fireworks and alot of personal fireworks created more pollution than a few public firework shows. People are especially restless this year because of the lockdown and not knowing if they would have a job, they needed a way to let off steam. We didn't have to cancel the fireworks shows there are ways to safley have a fireworks show. You could, limit the number of people at the show, you could require everyone to wear a mask, you could allow people to watch the fireworks from their yards/cars/trails, you could broadcast fireworks shows on TV. The protests prove that it is safe to be in a crowd a people if you are wearing a mask. I agree that the police can't enforce a law when a huge number of people break it. You need the support of the people for a law to be effective, and clearly alot of people don't support a fireworks ban. Maybe rules regarding how and where fireworks can be discharged would be better than a complete ban.

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  15. Nice and quiet out in Sammamish. I guess the barbarians haven't quite reached our gates yet, though yes I realize they are on their way.

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  16. Alright, let's talk about the sun. Low fire danger is good, but when you go too far the other way... Are we going to get "one of those summers"? Honestly, 2020 seems to be jinxed...

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  17. If policymakers aren't going to stop these personal fireworks displays, then July 5th should be a holiday too. If a large percentage of the populace in urban areas can't sleep until after midnight on July 4th, then sending them off to (mostly) drive to work on the 5th is both dangerous and not very productive.

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  18. Smoke sources on the 4th being fireworks, outdoor fire pits during evening parties, along with the BBQ's...

    The weather (low fire danger) was good for safe(r) backyard fireworks this year. Most of the city shows were cancelled. The 4th was on a Saturday, resulting in more parties (with fireworks) than usual. They may not good for air quality in the short duration, but for many this year they were a welcomed distraction.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4KTd4cCxBM

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    1. Funny you should mention fire pits as a smoke source. I got a pop-up ad for fire pits while looking at this blog post.

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  19. The background PM2.5 was a lot higher this year. It looks like 30-35ppm, as opposed to 5-10ppm last year. So the peak from celebrations might be 85-90ppm this year vs 90-95ppm last year.

    Either way, it's clear that the official fireworks displays are a fairly small part of the pollution.

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