4th of July fireworks: Yay or nay?

It’s a tradition most Americans look forward to—and most dogs dread. Every year, spectacular fireworks displays light up the skies on the 4th of July to celebrate the United States of America’s Independence Day. And every year, airborne pollutants from exploded fireworks degrade air quality across populated areas of the country.

The air quality index (AQI) captured each year on July 4 always demonstrates much worse air quality for cities trying to enjoy a happy 4th of July with fireworks.

And bear in mind – the current U.S. air quality index isn’t reflective of the more recent, science-backed, and comprehensive World Health Organization (WHO) annual air quality value guideline discussed in the IQAir 2023 World Air Quality Report. The WHO recommended guideline established that the annual average PM2.5 concentration should be no more than 5 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3). That’s nearly half the current U.S. “good” AQI of 9 μg/m3 – which, by that definition, is not really good.

It’s not just the large, sanctioned commercial pyrotechnic displays that cause spikes in air pollution around the country on this holiday, it’s also the small gatherings that include fireworks – legal and illegal.

Please read on: there are many ways you can have a healthy, happy Fourth of July for yourself, your family, and your friends, and not contribute to the overall air pollution that day.


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What fireworks do to air quality

From sparklers, smoke bombs and firecrackers, to the spectacular overhead explosions we’ve all seen, all fireworks release combustion particles and gases into the air, which can ultimately travel for miles on wind currents.

Two common sources of pollutants in fireworks are:

  • Black powder (gunpowder)  – a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate
  • Colorants – chemicals that radiate different colors when ignited

The chemicals in the colorants are wide-ranging and often toxic. They include:

  • strontium, lithium (for reds)
  • calcium, calcium chloride (oranges)
  • sodium, sodium chloride (yellows)
  • barium (greens)
  • copper (blues)
  • chlorine (greens and blues)

Typical types of particles that fireworks introduce into the atmosphere are PM2.5, PM10 (coarse particles ranging from 2.5–10 microns in diameter), PM0.1 (ultrafine particles, also known as UFPs, that are smaller than 0.3 microns in diameter – by far the most dangerous PM pollutant), and volatile organic compounds (also known as VOCs, airborne vapor or gaseous compounds responsible for many odors). Note that many of these particles are so tiny that they can be inhaled into the lungs where they infiltrate the bloodstream, causing many health problems.

Studies confirm fireworks’ impact on air pollution

In Albany, New York, PM pollutant concentrations were found to be up to 10 times higher than normal in the hours right after a fireworks show (1).

Air quality at 315 locations around the United States on July 4 measured PM2.5 increases from 42% to 370%.

A study in 2015 of air quality at 315 locations around the United States on July 4 measured PM2.5 increases from 42% to 370%. The highest concentrations of pollutants typically occurred in the nine o’clock hour. Elevated concentrations lasted sometimes until noon on July 5 (2).

Researchers in 2019 reported that PM10 concentrations in the Netherlands, which were averaging around 29 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3), climbed as high as 598 μg/m3 (a nearly 2,000% increase) in some places during the first hour after New Year’s Eve fireworks shows (3).

Alternatives to fireworks for a happy July 4th

The above studies were interested in the air pollution that collectively develops from Fourth of July fireworks celebrations. Regardless of how good or bad your local air quality is on that day, individual get-togethers endanger your personal breathing spaces.

Here are some fun ways to participate in the festivities without creating air pollution, thus protecting your and your loved ones’ lungs, as well as helping preserve air quality on a larger scale.

Regardless of how good or bad your local air quality is on July 4, individual get-togethers endanger your personal breathing spaces.

You will be able to find more information, including step-by-step instructions, by conducting a web search on any of the following ideas:

Little kids

  • balloon poppers – safely shoots red, white, and blue confetti into the air
  • balloon firecrackers – confetti plus a bang
  • soda/Mentos fountains
  • balloons with LED lights inside – yes, they really make LEDs just for this
  • LED ropes and glow sticks – write in the sky like you can with sparklers

Little kids with adult supervision (4), (5)

  • dry ice – the CO2 emitted from them is not considered a source of pollution
  • non-polluting chemical-reaction experiments such as a baking soda/vinegar volcano, or for more extreme fun, “elephant toothpaste” (6)

Bigger kids (7)

  • non-polluting chemical-reaction experiments
  • confetti cannons with biodegradable confetti – uses compressed air for propulsion
  • gender-reveal cannons with nontoxic powder
  • nontoxic Holi powder
  • soda/Mentos rockets
  • laser light shows

Community activities

  • drone light shows –a huge, colorful nighttime spectacle (8)
  • outdoor movies – an outdoor projector, massive screen, intense sound system, (maybe a movie with a lot of explosions?) can create a memorable visual and aural experience

Personal protection from poor air

Even if you decide to have an Independence Day celebration void of activities that contribute to air pollution, the air quality around you will likely be hazardous to your health. To help avoid the potential impacts of air pollution:

  • monitor your air quality in real-time
  • wear a mask (rated N95, KN95, FFP2) when outdoors
  • close doors and windows
  • set HVAC to filter indoor (recirculated) air
  • Indoor air quality is greatly impacted by outdoor pollution; use a room air purifier or whole-house air purifier to help keep the air clean


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The takeaway

Fireworks are a grand, traditional experience, but between the dangers they present because of their explosive qualities, and the dangers they present because of their toxic qualities, it makes sense to rethink how to celebrate holidays like the Fourth of July.

Keep in mind that there are various “safe” firework alternatives, such as fog machines, paper sky lanterns, and some other chemical-reaction experiments, that do contribute to air pollution and therefore should be avoided.

Take a moment to consider some of the fun alternatives we’ve offered to traditional July 4 fireworks. Your lungs—and your dog—just may have a happier, healthier Independence Day in 2024.

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