Friday, July 3, 2009

Red, White and...Green?

“Normally I don’t eat steak, a burger AND a brat…but it is the 4th of July. I’m going to need the energy if I’m going to start blowing crap up. It’s what the founding fathers would want.”

-Jim Gaffigan, Beyond the Pale

People love watching fireworks displays, myself included. Must be something about the low whoosh as they’re launched, followed by that brief moment of anticipation before a cannon-like boom sets off half a dozen lame-sounding car alarms, and a shower of sparks fills the night sky with splendor—and sulfurous clouds of who knows what. God bless the U.S.A., right?

At the risk of, well, having my patriotism questioned, I’d like to suggest that we could do some good by downsizing fireworks displays in the years to come. I admit, making that recommendation on July 3rd seems a little late, but sometimes, you don’t think about these things until they’re right in front of you. Nonetheless, trimming the Independence Day pyrotechnics stands to set a far more patriotic example by minimizing land, air and water pollution, while also saving local, city and state government some green, too.

First, the bad news: fireworks imports have been on the rise recently, more than doubling between 1999 (65,000 tons) and 2006 (123,000 tons). This has lead to an increase in atmospheric emissions of heavy metals, sulfur-coal compounds and some low concentration toxic chemicals like barium, antimony sulfide and perchlorate (the latter is found in rocket fuel). So, while the displays may be breathtaking, that's the one thing you wouldn't want to do in the middle of a smoke cloud. The chemicals released often find their way into lakes, affecting fish and other wildlife. In one study, perchlorate levels rose more than 1,000 times above normal and stayed there for 14 hours; levels didn't return to normal for another 20-80 days. The effects of human exposure over long periods are currently unknown. Suddenly, the fields of non-biodegradable fireworks debris, while a concern, don't seem nearly as scary.

Now, the good news: fireworks are still regulated/restricted in many states by the Clean Air Act (whether that's enforced effectively is another story). Pyrotechnicians have also developed biodegradable fireworks shells and a mixture of clean-burning compounds that use nitrogen instead of potassium perchlorate (the only downside is, many large outdoor displays haven't made use of them because—guess what—they're more expensive, and until there's more of an incentive to purchase them, there probably won't be many buyers). And Disney recently pioneered the use of a compressed air launch pad, saving a bit on gunpowder emissions.

Interested in making the case to green up Independence Day? Unfortunately, I don't have many resources to point you to at the moment, but I'll be sure to follow-up with some information. Until then, I suggest starting at the local level and working your way up. You might find that, with a petition and a handful of signatures, your cash-strapped city government might be open to trimming the budget for the 4th. And, while many might groan at the thought, it never hurts to write your congressmen to let them know how you feel. Or hey, you could even start a blog and gripe about whatever you like. :)

If you’re like me and have a love-hate relationship with fireworks, you might like this article.

Until next time, happy 4th of July!

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