The 4th of July is finally here and public venues across the country are gearing up for their annual fireworks shows. While it may be customary to view fireworks strictly based on their entertainment value, there’s more complexity to the science and environmental impact behind them than meets the eye.
The earliest documentation of fireworks dates back to ancient China. As early as 200 BCE, the Chinese discovered that when they roasted bamboo, it would explode as the air heated inside the hollow interior pockets. Some time between 600 and 900 AD, Chinese alchemists mixed together saltpeter (potassium nitrate, then a common kitchen seasoning), charcoal, sulfur and other ingredients, creating an early form of gunpowder. They stuffed this mixture inside bamboo stalks that were thrown into a fire to produce loud blasts. Eventually, they began attaching these shoots to arrows and launching them into the sky. Fireworks have come a long way since then and their environmental impact has become a growing concern.
Fireworks manufacturers combine a variety of toxic materials in order to create the vibrant colors we all love. Perchlorate is used as a propellant. Metal salts create the colors. Researchers have found that these contaminants impact air quality and often persist in soil and water.
Researchers have come up with ways to make fireworks more environmentally friendly. For example, nitrogen-rich pyrotechnics have been proven to demonstrate better performance with greater color quality and smoke free burning. Chemists have also explored the use of magnesium diboride as more environmentally friendly alternative to barium for producing green light in pyrotechnics.
With locations in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Alabama, Mark’s Fireworks Factory Outlets has been one of the most successful fireworks retailers in the region since 1999. Sara Thoele, manager of the Effingham, IL, Mark’s location for over three years, believes that there are major benefits to be had in eco-friendly fireworks for both vendors and consumers. “I think that the fireworks industry can sometimes get a negative reputation for not having public safety in mind,” Thoele said. “So I think that making moves to be a more environmentally-friendly store would be a great demonstration that we do have the safety, health, and comfort of our communities in mind.”
Thoele pointed out that when buying inventory for the summer season, many fireworks purveyors focus solely on competitive pricing, appealing packaging, and the guarantee of reliable, functional entertainment. However, the appeal of an eco-friendly spin to the fireworks industry has powerful value for both retailers and the communities they serve.