The entire San Francisco Bay Area is currently out of drought conditions — but increased air pollution and orange skies continue to pop up across the country.
California is likely to experience additional warming by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit by 2040, which will likely turn to 4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2070. Across the United States, some 162 million people — nearly one in two individuals — will likely experience a decline in the quality of their environment, namely more heat and less water; the world will see north of 1.2 billion climate refugees by 2050.
Yet, we still continue to light the murky nighttime skies around San Francisco with volatile chemicals.
It should be foreign to our very humanness to live in disbelief of our negative impact on the environment. To cast away all sound and sane logic to embrace the notion that we can live infinite lifestyles on a planet with finite resources. And it’s this exact line of thinking that’s gotten us here: past the point of climate change, now firmly sat in an era defined by climate emergencies.
Fireworks are innately an ecological disaster. Traditional pyrotechnics are made from 75% potassium nitrate (also called saltpeter) mixed with 15% charcoal, and 10% sulfur; modern-day fireworks sometimes use other mixtures (such as sulfurless powder with extra potassium nitrate) or other chemicals, alternatively. The spectrum of glowing colors we now synonymize with 4th of July firework displays come from using specific salts, among them: strontium carbonate (red fireworks), calcium chloride (orange fireworks), sodium nitrate (yellow fireworks), barium chloride (green fireworks), and copper chloride (blue fireworks).
When fireworks do go off, those metal salts and other explosives undergo a chemical reaction that transforms their otherwise solid resting states into clouds of smoke and fumes, which are then released into the air. These gaseous chemical reactions produce carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen — all three vapors being greenhouse gases that contribute to human-induced global warming.
They don’t just remain suspended in the atmosphere, either.
Especially here in San Francisco — a city famous for its dense rolling fog — those harmful, volatile, acidic compounds find their way into nearby waterways; through layers of topsoil; into the bodies of nearby fauna that have passively consumed them; absorbed through our skin, lungs, and bloodstreams, wreaking havoc on our endocrine systems (among other bodily functions).
Primarily, the harm from firework byproducts involves particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in aerodynamic diameter. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), those particle pollutants pose the greatest risk to health, as they’re more easily able to enter our bodies.
A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health — the paper, itself, titled “Impact of 4th of July Fireworks on Spatiotemporal PM2.5 Concentrations in California Based on the PurpleAir Sensor Network: Implications for Policy and Environmental Justice ” — found an alarming relationship between lingering bad air quality and fireworks.
Several days after national holidays and festivals where pyrotechnics are popular, the air around those areas can have “[two] to [ten] times greater than background levels” of high concentrations of fine particulate matter (also called particle pollution) and co-pollutants (i.e. trace metals and water-soluble ions, like those from nitrates) due to firework displays.
No surprise: Levels of both those pollutants were found to be especially elevated on July 4th and 5th.
Moreover: The Bay Area makes up part of the Great Pacific Flyway, a major north-south passage for migratory birds in America that extend from Alaska to Patagonia.
Throughout about half of the year, migratory birds — many of which are considered “threatened” or “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature — use the passageway to find breeding grounds, and feeding areas, or travel to overwintering sites. Various studies show the loud and spontaneous explosions of fireworks incite flight responses and disorientation in some bird species. (Anyone with a fur child can speak to the level of fear fireworks can bring to animals.)
In particular, researchers have discovered that birds are more apt to take flight en masse, flying remarkably longer and higher than what’s normal after the boom of a firework. This exacerbated survival instinct can cause birds’ energy reserves to plummet; there’s one documented example of a bird that flew so far out to sea it wasn’t feasible for it to make the return trip.
In San Francisco — a metropolitan that saw its skies turn orange in 2020; the city that’s seen air quality reach record-shattering levels of toxicity amid fire seasons of yesteryears; an urban area rich with popular birdwatching sites — igniting its hazy skies with these chemical releases sits as an uncomfortable metaphor to our complacency around the climate crisis. Neither the planet nor our species can afford to act in such ways going forward.
The climate has changed (for the worse); our rituals must adapt (for the better). Polluting our atmosphere under the guise of patriotism seems like a worthwhile practice to revisit.