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Saturday, July 4, 2009

A Fabulous Fourth with Eco-Friendly Fireworks

You've got your eco-friendly party ware, your sustainable red, white, and blue feast, all natural mosquito repellent, and organically brewed beer to top it off. But when you and your guests head over to watch the local fireworks, will you undo all that healthful green activity with exposure to toxic potassium perchlorate? Probably not: first of all, unless you work at an amusement park or follow a touring heavy metal band, most people only attend one or two fireworks displays a year. The amount of chemical exposure isn't enough to really do much damage to spectators.
As lovely as they are, large fireworks displays are environmentally problematic, leaving toxic layers of perchlorate in lakes and across fields for anywhere from 20 to 80 days after the event. Again, is this as big an environmental risk as all the hamburgers being served up in backyards across the nation? Yes and no. One good thing about encouraging green firework displays is that the impact affects other industries, too. (And by the way, actual green fireworks are some of the worst offenders, as the barium used to make those shades is highly toxic. Luckily, there are alternatives).
Surprisingly, creating better environmentally safe fireworks helps generate ecologically-minded alternatives for more common pyrotechnical applications. Consider pyrotechnic flares, which are used widely in ground-based military operations, air transportation, naval emergencies, and training programs (to accustom soldiers to the sound of frequent explosions). Rocket fuel is also among the products being examined in the same desire to be safer to the world and to workers who create and use these chemicals.
Some green enthusiasts will argue that all fireworks are problematic -- even if the steel, plastic, and fiberglass cartridges and casings were replaced with cardboard or paper mache, it's hard to make a case for polluting the environment with perchlorate, barium, and copper. But if we consider the chemical industry a partner in the green movement rather than an adversary, the impetus to develop new and safer products for celebrations, military pyrotechnics, and air/sea safety is a good one. Scientists like Robert G. Shortridge of the Crane Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center have been working on flares made with strontium-based oxidants. These formulations are perchlorate-free and tested in military-style environments for safety and effectiveness. Another approach by chemists has been the use of high-nitrogen pyrotechnics. Some spin-off companies such as DMD have had great success, especially creating products for rock shows, Disney, and sporting events where the firework displays are done repeatedly at the same venue or are indoors, an environment where the toxicity levels would build up more rapidly than a single fourth of July celebration. Happily, with new low-smoke formulations, the colors are also more brilliant.
However, most traditional pyrotechnics are created in China for a lower cost. The new fireworks, like many environmentally-sound products, use materials that are more expensive than percholorate, making it a more costly investment. Companies like Disney can afford to be on board, but many people have to help defray the costs or demand the alternatives for their local community events. The good news is that DMD and other companies report that their clients are starting to request the perchlorate-free products for outdoor events, too. This year, New York City is aiming for more eco-friendly displays. Indeed, Americans should take a hint from India, where fireworks are a major part of the celebration of Diwali. At the Lucknow Market, a major campaign involving Bollywood celebrities and local officials even promoted eco-safe ground fireworks to go with the larger displays.
images: wikipedia commons and climate weather alert.


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