America’s Love Affair With Fireworks

“A dance of colors
Reveling merrily
They gaze down at me
Shooting across the sky
Illuminating the night
I’ve been set free
Rippling across the ocean of the dark
Like a water drop hitting the surface of the sea
Generating waves, causing tremors
Firework beauty.” – unknown.

  • “During my research, I also learned how much of an environmental disaster Fireworks are.”

  • “Eventually, the new technologies will make their way into commercial fireworks and in the meantime, we can contact our politicians and demand cleaner firework shows. ”

Credit to the unknown poet who penned this ode to the universally loved BIG BOOMS.  I love Fireworks.  From Sparklers, to Jumping Jacks, to Bottle Rockets, to Roman Candles, to the big booms. I love the smoke, the light, the boom that announces itself violently, and the glorious display of vivid color that follows.

That said, I hate traffic. So despite the awesome displays, I usually skip out on the Fort Vancouver and Downtown show. Instead, my family opts for the smaller show down in Sellwood at Oaks Park.  At the end of a particularly rousing finale years past, the crowd I was in began the “USA! USA! USA!” chant.  I wondered, ‘were any of these fireworks made in the US?’  It’s hard to suppress a laugh when people paper themselves in US flags made in China. It felt weird to hear the chants of USA knowing most of the fireworks were purchased from China. Further adding to our trade imbalance.

This was 2012 and that night I decided to pop on the internet and see if I was right. Did we buy from China and are there any US-manufactured fireworks? It turns out, there were only a few options for American-made fireworks, and mostly for smaller items. Nothing for large aerial displays. During my research, I also learned how much of an environmental disaster Fireworks are.

Environmental Effect of Fireworks

As a country, we spend nearly a billion dollars annually, celebrating our independence with booms. Those explosions of color come at a steep cost though. From an article by Russell McLendon, “Fireworks get their flamboyance from a variety of chemicals, many of which are toxic to humans.”  In it he details the chemicals used for fuel and color and the downsides/after effects of the metallic compounds.  In another article, the author linked a 2002 article that estimated, “US Firework shows may have generated 90 tons of sky-borne lead pollution, a flagrant violation of the Clean Air Act….”

This poses not only a problem, but an opportunity. So I did further research and reached out to a company in Los Alamos, NM who showed up in my research as working on large-scale aerial display fireworks.  The company was well aware of the environmental hazards and had focused on switching from perchlorate (basically rocket fuel) to nitrocellulose as an alternative source. They also educated me on alternative, less harmful chemicals used to generate the vibrant bursts of color we all love.  In addition, they told me of previous, unsuccessful attempts to work with Disney and also discouraged me from going the Small Business Innovation Research process for grants from the Government.  The big companies were interested in developing the aerials, but sticking to the indoor pyrotechnics side of things.

This saddened my inner greenie, and I have not really enjoyed fireworks as much since.  As they say, “ignorance is bliss.”

In my 4th of July pipe dream, I envisioned a scenario where I created a fireworks company that manufactured environmentally-friendly fireworks, completely staffed by Veterans and owned by the employees.  That was many moons ago and my candle now burns bright for tax code.

Engineering Improvements

All is not lost.  In researching this article, turns out the Los Alamos guys kept grinding and have made progress on lower-smoke fireworks using nitrocellulose, as opposed to perchlorate and may owe credit to the military….

“Scientists with the US Army’s Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center (ARDEC) are trying find a cheap, effective replacement for perchlorate. For the military, which uses pyrotechnics to mimic actual battlefield conditions in training simulations, perchlorate contamination of groundwater can shut down training operations. “When soldiers get deployed to real combat theaters, they are less prepared,” says Jared Moretti, a scientist with ARDEC who specializes in pyrotechnics.”

Eventually, the new technologies will make their way into commercial fireworks and in the meantime, we can contact our politicians and demand cleaner firework shows.  After all, about 75 years ago, fireworks used mercury, arsenic and lead compounds for effects.