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The Toxic Beauty of Fireworks

July 01, 2016

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Just about everyone enjoys fireworks, which are undeniably beautiful. But, with that beauty comes a price. The stunning sight-and-sound displays that are often used to celebrate special occasions are actually fiery explosives. These combustibles can produce toxic fallout that poses serious human health and environmental dangers.

Among other things, fireworks are made up of gun powder, accelerant, heavy metals and numerous contaminants, such as ozone, carbon dioxide, nitric oxide and sulfur dioxide. The toxic smoke and dust produced during firework displays can be inhaled directly into the lungs. The negative health effects of fireworks go far beyond temporary lung inflammation and respiratory problems, however.

Carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals released by fireworks can later invade the body through contaminated water or soil. That’s because firework displays often take place over oceans, rivers and lakes, and the resulting toxic fallout can directly contaminate water sources. In addition to posing a direct health risk to humans, these pollutants can affect fish and other aquatic life, and eventually move up the food chain.

The dangerous chemicals released during firework displays can wreak havoc on the human body, affecting the endocrine system, immune system, gastrointestinal system and metabolism, as well as the neurotransmitters in the brain. For instance:

  • Perchlorate, a chemical that is often mixed with sulfur and charcoal to create the gunpowder that makes fireworks explode, can inhibit the ability of the thyroid gland to derive iodine from blood (hypothyroidism). This can interfere with the production of thyroid hormones, which are essential to the metabolic and mental development processes. It can also lead to goiter and thyroid cancer.
  • Strontium, a heavy metal used to produce the bright red colors in fireworks, has been linked to many serious health consequences, including birth defects, damaged bone marrow, inhibited bone growth, anemia and impaired blood clotting.
  • Some of the other chemicals dispersed by fireworks, such as aluminum, barium, cadium, dioxins, and rubidium, are radioactive and known carcinogens. Exposure to these chemicals has been associated with a host of health conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, heart disease, kidney disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, gastrointestinal disorders and chronic fatigue.
  • As researchers continue to study the impact of fireworks on human health and the environment, many public safety and environmental advocates now discourage the use of traditional pyrotechnics during festivities. Alternatives include laser light shows, parades and block parties, as well as new technology that uses environmentally friendly compressed air in place of gunpowder to launch fireworks. By celebrating our freedom in a less toxic way, we can avoid sacrificing some of that freedom – namely, our health – to a contaminated environment.

If you are concerned about possible carcinogen exposure or would like to discuss your cancer risk profile with an expert at Moffitt Cancer Center, call 1-888-MOFFITT to schedule an appointment or complete a new patient registration form online.