Metals in the air


Fireworks. By K. Davies

With the festive season approaching fast, firework displays are set to light up the Perth skyline. However, recent research suggests the pollution created by pyrotechnic displays is a cause for concern.

A recent study published in the journal of Environmental Science and Pollution Research examined the air quality in Auckland, New Zealand, before and after the Guy Fawkes fireworks celebrations in the city. 

The study observed a sharp increase in particulate matter air pollution after the event, with potassium making up 52 per cent of the rise in this particulate matter. The researchers also noticed the highest levels of pollution came from individual fireworks, such as sparklers, which are frequently sold in Australia.

University of Auckland aerosol chemist Dr Joel Rindelaub contributed to the research and said he was concerned about the high levels of particles measured in the air after firework use. “There are very high amounts of air pollution in the form of particulate matter, as well as a lot of heavy metals that are generated from these types of [firework displays],” he said.

Dr Rindelaub emphasised wearing a standard face mask won’t completely protect you from the smoke emitted from fireworks. “Masks are typically not designed to filter out this extremely small size of particles. While they will of course help in some respect, they’re not really going to do much for the particles that are of most concern.”

Dr Rindelaub said more research was urgently needed to recognise the health impacts that these brief pollutant displays may cause.

“We need to better understand the impact of some of these short-term pollution events,” he said.

His concerns are mirrored by the World Health Organisation naming air pollution as the biggest threat to human health and attributing 4.2 million deaths per year globally to outdoor air pollution.

Curtin University epidemiologist and environmental health researcher Gavin Pereira said the consequences of exposure to this smoke varied.

“Inhaling any level of smoke from fireworks is likely to be harmful, but the degree of harm will depend on the dose, the frequency of exposure, and biological susceptibility of the individual,” he said.

“We know for certain that fine particulate matter air pollution increases risk of cardiovascular death and stroke, accounting for about 5 per cent of all deaths globally.”

Professor Gavin Pereira

In Australia, 2.7 million people are diagnosed with asthma, a medical condition that causes airways to become narrow, making it difficult to breathe, with firework displays being a trigger for many. Earlier this year, the City of Cockburn ordered a desktop review and impact assessment of a local fireworks display.

As a result of the review outlining the health and environmental impacts of firework displays, the City of Cockburn decided to explore safer alternatives.

“The city will continue to investigate alternatives to fireworks displays with the aim of phasing out city-sponsored fireworks in the long term,” a spokesperson said.

Clarifying that concern about pollution was a main component of their decision, the city’s statement said:  “Metals released from fireworks may be deposited in soils or water bodies or inhaled by humans or fauna. Many of the metals used in fireworks have carcinogenic or toxic impacts on humans, flora, and fauna.”

Sidestepping the issue of pollution, the WA Department of Mines, Industry Regulations and Safety’s website said ensuring the safety of spectators at fireworks events was a shared responsibility:

“While DMIRS regulates fireworks safety …, many other agencies are involved in firework events to regulate things like noise disturbance, crowd safety and exclusion zones.”