The Malta Independent 5 December 2023, Tuesday
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Fireworks, the environment and human health

Sunday, 1 October 2023, 08:35 Last update: about 3 months ago

Exploring the explosive connection. Emma Camilleri and Prof. Renald Blundell writes.

Fireworks have captivated humans for centuries, dazzling us with their vivid colours, explosive patterns and breathtaking displays. However, beyond their aesthetic appeal lies a complex relationship with both the environment and human health. Today we will be having a closer look at this link and the science behind fireworks.


What are fireworks?

Fireworks are pyrotechnic devices designed to produce colourful displays of light, noise and smoke. They typically consist of a composition of chemicals enclosed in a shell, which, upon ignition, creates the explosive effects we associate with fireworks. The history of fireworks can be traced back over a thousand years to ancient China during the Tang Dynasty, where they were originally invented.


Chinese alchemists were experimenting with a combination of sulphur, charcoal and potassium nitrate, which eventually led to the development of early fireworks. Initially, fireworks were used for their symbolic and ceremonial value, including warding off evil spirits. Over time, their use spread to celebrations and cultural events worldwide.

As explained earlier, the mesmerising displays we witness on fireworks' nights are a result of the careful combination of chemistry and physics. The various colours are achieved by introducing different metal salts into the firework composition. When ignited, these metal salts emit characteristic colours due to the excitation and subsequent de-excitation of electrons. The bursts and patterns are created by controlling the timing and placement of the explosive charges within the firework shell.

In the modern era, fireworks have become an integral part of various festivities and celebrations, such as national holidays, New Year's Eve and religious observances. They continue to captivate audiences with their grandeur, serving as a source of entertainment and community engagement. Fireworks displays have become increasingly sophisticated, incorporating synchronised music and complex choreography to create memorable experiences.


The impact of fireworks on the environment and human health

While fireworks bring joy and wonder to our lives, they also pose significant environmental challenges. The chemicals used in fireworks, such as perchlorates, heavy metals (like lead, copper and barium), and sulphur compounds, can have detrimental effects on the environment. When fireworks are launched, these chemicals are released into the air, water and soil, contaminating ecosystems and posing risks to plant and animal life.

Fireworks release a variety of chemical compounds and heavy metals into the air when they explode negatively impacting the air quality. These include sulphur, carbon, copper, potassium and strontium, among others. The combustion of these materials can generate fine particulate matter (PM) and toxic gases such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. When inhaled, these pollutants can contribute to respiratory issues, exacerbate asthma symptoms and cause respiratory distress, especially in individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions.

Furthermore, the fine PM produced by fireworks can travel long distances and contribute to regional air pollution. This pollution can degrade air quality, harm human and animal respiratory systems and impact overall ecosystem health.

Furthermore, fireworks produce high-intensity noise, which can exceed safe levels. The sudden loud noises can be distressing for individuals, particularly those with noise sensitivity, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Exposure to excessive noise levels can also lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss, especially for those in close proximity to the fireworks display. Similarly, the loud noise from fireworks can be distressing and disorienting to animals, particularly wildlife and domesticated pets. The sudden explosions can cause panic, displace animals from their habitats, disrupt mating and nesting behaviours and even lead to injuries or death in some cases.

Since fireworks contain various chemicals, including heavy metals like lead, mercury and cadmium, these toxic substances can contaminate soil and water bodies when such residues fall to the ground or wash into nearby water sources. Prolonged exposure to these substances can have detrimental effects on human health, potentially leading to neurological disorders, kidney damage and other adverse health outcomes. These pollutants can also harm aquatic organisms, disrupt ecosystems and accumulate in the food chain, posing risks to both wildlife and human beings.

Unsurprisingly, fireworks are a known fire hazard and can cause serious injuries if not handled properly. Accidental fires can result from fireworks landing on flammable materials, such as dry vegetation or buildings. Injuries may occur due to mishandling or malfunctioning fireworks, leading to burns, eye injuries and even amputations.

Unfortunately, fireworks produce a considerable amount of waste, including spent casings, debris and unburned or partially burned materials. This waste can contribute to littering and requires proper cleanup and disposal to prevent its negative impact on the environment.


What can we do?

To mitigate the negative impact of fireworks on the environment and human health, several measures can be taken. Firstly, the development and use of "green fireworks" that utilise environmentally-friendly chemicals and produce fewer pollutants can significantly reduce their ecological footprint. Furthermore, enforcing regulations regarding the disposal of firework debris and restricting launches near sensitive habitats can help protect the environment.

Considering alternatives to traditional fireworks is also worth exploring. Laser light shows, projection mapping and other forms of multimedia displays can offer captivating alternatives that minimise the environmental impact. Additionally, virtual reality and augmented reality technologies can provide immersive experiences that mimic fireworks without the associated pollution and health risks.



Fireworks have a rich history and continue to be a source of awe and celebration worldwide. However, it is essential to recognise their impact on the environment and human health. By exploring greener alternatives and implementing responsible practices, we can preserve the beauty of fireworks while safeguarding our fragile ecosystems and protecting the well-being of individuals. With careful consideration and innovative solutions, we can strike a balance between our desire for spectacular displays and the need to preserve our planet and health for generations to come.


Renald Blundell is a biochemist and biotechnologist with a special interest in Natural and Alternative Medicine. He is a professor at the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, University of Malta


Emma Camilleri is currently a medical student at the University of Malta


Image: AI-generated images created by Prof. Blundell  

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