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Air Quality and Health Effects

Brilliant fireworks displays are fun to watch but have the potential for high concentrations of smoke, which can have health effects. This is especially true around the 4th of July, when extensive fireworks are part of large events and smaller displays taking place at neighborhood and family gatherings.

Fountain of fireworks. Copyright Timothy Hansel nature photography.
Fountain of fireworks.
© Timothy Hansel nature photography

Color and Metal

The brilliant colors in the fireworks are created from the powdered metallic salts that pyrotechnics manufacturers add to the explosive fireworks shells. Copper produces blue, barium provides green and strontium produces red. Powdered magnesium provides intensely bright flashes of white – in fact, magnesium burns so brightly, it is also used in military illumination flares. Fireworks manufactured in other countries are illegal here because they frequently contain lead, which is banned from fireworks produced in the United States.

Smoke and Particulate Matter

The smoke from fireworks is comprised of both coarse and fine particles. The DNR has monitored spikes of extremely high concentrations of these particles, especially fine particles (PM2.5), during and immediately after fireworks displays. Nitrogen and sulfur, used to create color and special effects, can combine with oxygen to form nitric and sulfuric acids which are very hard on the lungs. The smoke from the displays generally dissipates within a few hours, but individuals may feel lingering health effects. For information about current PM2.5 levels in areas monitored by the DNR, visit Wisconsin's Current Air Quality.

Health Effects

Those most affected are children, elderly adults and individuals with respiratory or cardiac conditions. Short-term exposures can aggravate lung disease, causing asthma and acute bronchitis, and increasing the susceptibility to respiratory infections. In people with heart disease, short-term exposures to the smoke from fireworks have been linked to heart attacks and arrhythmias. For more information, visit Particle pollution.

What You Can Do

To minimize the impacts from fireworks smoke, individuals should reduce or eliminate their use of personal fireworks, which tend to concentrate smoke at ground level. Aerial displays at community events, while producing more smoke, are launched higher above ground to dissipate the smoke more completely before reaching people at ground level. Individuals who anticipate a health reaction to the intense smoke of fireworks displays are advised to avoid the display areas and view the fireworks from a distance. Those individuals who are particularly sensitive may want to consider staying indoors (especially after dark) and closing the windows.