Environment: Independence Day fireworks cause short-term spike in harmful air pollution

July 4 fireworks.
July 4 fireworks can result in short-term spikes of fine particulate pollution. @bberwyn photo.

Research tracks surge in PM2.5 pollution around the Fourth of July

Staff Report

FRISCO — The fallout from Independence Day fireworks can cause air pollution to spike by as much as 370 percent for a few hours, scientists said this week after studying several years worth of data from more than 300 air quality monitors around the country.

Specifically, the researchers looked at the surge in fine particulate matter — particles that are two and one half microns in diameter (PM2.5) on July 4. The data came from 315 measuring sites spanning 15 years, for the first time quantifying the increase in pollution.

The researchers said they aren’t trying to put a damper on holiday celebrations. They chose the Fourth of July for their study because it’s the best way to measure the impacts across the country.

“These results will help improve air quality predictions, which currently don’t account for fireworks as a source of air pollution,” said Dian Seidel, a senior scientist at NOAA’s Air Resources Laboratory in College Park, Maryland. “The study is also another wake up call for those who may be particularly sensitive to the effects of fine particulate matter,” Seidel said.

The study, published in the journal Atmospheric Environment, shows that hourly concentrations of fine particulate matter typically reach their highest levels, when compared to the days before and after July 4, on the evening of July 4.

Levels drop back down by noon on July 5, according to the research. On average, the increases are largest from 9-10 p.m. on the holiday. Average concentrations over the 24-hour period starting at 8 p.m. on July 4 are 42 percent greater than on the days preceding and following the holiday.

The scientists wanted to study the pollution because the microscopic PM2.5 particles affect health because they travel deep into a person’s respiratory tract, entering the lungs. Both long- and short-term exposures to fine particles are linked to a range of health effects, from coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, to asthma attacks, heart attack and stroke, and premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

People with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children are among those most at risk from particle pollution exposure. For more information on risks, go online to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The increases in fine particulate matter concentrations varied from location to location, depending on the proximity of the fireworks to the monitoring site and variations in weather conditions. At one location, where fireworks are set off in a field adjacent to air quality monitoring instruments, particulate matter concentrations rose 370 percent on the holiday, well above the 24-hour fine particle standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s rules accommodate the tradition of using fireworks on the Fourth of July and at other cultural events, by allowing states to demonstrate that the short-term PM2.5 spikes measured on July 4 and 5 were influenced by fireworks display and should not be used in determining whether an area has violated the agency’s 24-hour PM2.5 standards.

And while the EPA does not regulate fireworks, the agency does recommend that people who are considered sensitive to particle pollution try to limit their exposure by watching fireworks from upwind – or as far away as possible. People with asthma should follow their asthma action plans and be sure to have their quick relief medicine handy.

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