Czech scientists warn toxins from fireworks can result in acute smog poisoning

Millions of people round the world have got used to seeing the New Year in with a grandiose fireworks display. Now Czech scientists from the Academy of Sciences are warning about the damage that the harmful chemicals from fireworks can do to our health.

Illustrative Photo: Ralf Vetterle,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

On New Year’s Eve tons of harmful chemicals from a vast variety of fireworks are released into the air. The substances are not banned and no one monitors how much of them gets into the environment. Scientists can only make a rough estimate based on the amount of fireworks sold. Petr Klusoň from the Czech Academy of Sciences says the health hazard is underestimated.

"Many people who attend the celebrations feel bad the day after and sometimes for longer. They naturally put it down to having drunk too much champagne. In actual fact they are more likely to be feeling the effects of acute smog poisoning. On New Year’s Eve about 12 and a half tons of magnesium, ten and a half tons of barium, a ton of strontium, almost a ton of titanium, half a ton of copper and 1.2 tons of rubidium pollute the air in Czechia. That is the amount that eventually descends on us and that we breathe in. If ten percent of that mix was produced once a year by any factory, its management would end up in prison."

A toxic cocktail of these substances is dispersed in the air on fireworks’ night. Some of these substances are included to make the fireworks burn and explode, others give them colour. Experts warn that many of them are toxic, even though they are legal.

Illustrative Photo: makunin,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

Pavel Rössler, a toxicologist at the Institute of Experimental Medicine of the Academy of Sciences says that in addition to making people sick the day after these substances can do long-term damage. He claims that even from one night of fireworks, our risk of getting cancer sometime later increases. It depends not only on how long we breathe the substances in question, but also on their concentration.

"They enter the lungs and other organs through the blood stream. Now, the molecules in cells repair themselves but, the moment you overload the system, changes can occur that may manifest themselves much later."

Moreover, Rössler argues, firework smog differs from ordinary smog in that it contains metallic elements such as strontium, barium or rubidium. These give fireworks their colour but are normally only found in nature in ores deep underground. Living organisms are not used to coping with them.

"They're quite reactive. They lead to so-called oxidative damage. They react very easily with DNA, which carries genetic information, as well as with proteins and fatty components in cells. Not every molecule is able to repair itself."

Illustrative Photo: United States Army/Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

The toxic particles from fireworks that are not inhaled fall to the ground, they get into the water and soil and are harmful to the environment. Chemist Petr Klusoň says it’s a problem that receives surprisingly little attention worldwide.

"There is practically no monitoring. Grant agencies and ministries don't support it because they see it as completely insignificant compared to other threats. But that isn’t so. To have strontium dispersed into the air with small children running around and making a snowman the next day is totally irresponsible.“

Czech scientists recommend that people avoid fireworks or at least keep small children away from them.

Authors: Daniela Lazarová , Martin Srb
run audio