Fourth of July Downer: Fireworks Cause Spike in Air Pollution

Fireworks are a beloved tradition of the Fourth of July, but the colorful displays also bring a spike in air pollution, a new study shows. Continue reading →

Fireworks are a beloved tradition of the Fourth of July, but the colorful displays also bring a spike in air pollution, a new study shows.

The researchers analyzed information from more than 300 air-quality monitoring sites throughout the United States, from 1999 to 2013. The researchers looked at levels of so-called fine particulate matter - tiny particles that can get deep into the lungs, and are linked with a number of health problems.

The study found that average concentrations of fine particulate matter, taken over a 24-hour period, are 42 percent greater on July Fourth, compared with the few days before and after the holiday.

The increases in fine particulate matter were highest from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. on the Fourth. During that hour, fine particulate matter concentrations increased by 21 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3), pushing the total concentration close to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's limit for a 24-hour period of 35 µg/m3. [50 Fabulous 4th of July Facts: History of Independence]

On a local level, increases in fine particulate matter varied depending on a number of factors, including the weather and the proximity of fireworks to the monitoring site. At one site in Utah, where fireworks were set off in a field next to the air-quality monitoring site, particulate matter concentrations rose 370 percent on the holiday, well above the EPA standard.

Exposure to fine particles, like those found in smoke and haze, is linked with a number of negative health effects, such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, asthma attacks and even heart attacks, stroke and early death, according to the EPA. People at greatest risk for problems from fine particulate matter are those with heart or lung disease, older adults and children.

The findings are "another wake-up call for those who may be particularly sensitive to the effects of fine particulate matter," study researcher Dian Seidel, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Air Resources Laboratory in College Park, Maryland, said in a statement.

The EPA recommends that people who are sensitive to fine particulate matter try to limit their exposure to fireworks, either by watching them from upwind or as far away as possible.

Although previous studies have noted an increase in fine particulate matter following fireworks displays, the new study is the first to quantify the effects of fireworks nationwide.

"We chose the holiday, not to put a damper on celebrations of America's independence, but because it is the best way to do a nationwide study of the effects of fireworks on air quality," Seidel said. "These results will help improve air-quality predictions, which currently don't account for fireworks as a source of air pollution."

States are allowed to exceed the EPA standard for 24-hour fine particulate matter concentrations, if they can show that the spike was due to fireworks displays, or other "exceptional events," the researchers said.

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July 4, 1776 has gone down in history as America's day of independence -- the day the famous Declaration was signed. But there's more to July 4th than just fireworks. Read on to learn about four lesser-known, yet still historic, events that share their anniversary on July 4.

Alice Goes to Wonderland

Her real name is Alice Liddell, but you know her better as "Alice in Wonderland." And while Liddell was born in 1852, her literary counterpart would be born in a story during a row boat ride more than a decade later -- on July 4th. Alice Liddell grew up the daughter of Henry Liddell, a dean at Oxford and friend of Charles Dodgson (who wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll). Although historians can only speculate as to what the relationship between the Liddells -- especially Alice -- and Dodgson was really like, there's no denying its mark on history. It was on July 4, 1862 when Dodgson fabricated the wild tale of Alice and her wild adventures in an effort to entertain the real Alice Liddell and her two sisters, Edith and Lorina, while on a boat ride. His journal entry for that day mentions the trip and the day's activities, including, "…I told them the fairy-tale of 'Alice's Adventures Underground,' which I undertook to write out for Alice." The original book was published three years later, in 1865, and the rest is, well, literary history.

Thoreau Goes to Live on Walden Pond

Famous transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau is best known for his two years living beside Walden Pond and publishing a subsequent memoir and musings on the experience. Thoreau wrote, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately," and live in the woods he did -- but in a cabin. And his move-in date? July 4, 1845. In his famous manuscript, he recounted that day: "I began to occupy my house on the 4th of July, as soon as it was boarded and roofed, for the boards were carefully feather-edged and lapped, so that it was perfectly impervious to rain..." He went on to live in the cabin for two years and two months. His book, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, would be published nine years later.

Lou Gehrig's Farewell Speech

In his famous farewell speech, Lou Gehrig proclaimed, "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." The day was July 4, 1939. A lifetime New Yorker and Yankee, Gehrig was not only a record setting baseball player, but also one of of the most beloved players of all time. He was forced to give up baseball after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS -- often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease. Gehrig died on June 2, 1941.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams Die

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two of the country's most famous founding fathers and the second and third presidents of the United States, respectively, both died exactly 50 years after the signing of Declaration of Independence. The two gentlemen first met each other at the Second Continental Congress in 1775 and became fast friends. Later, the two would split in their political ideologies -- with Jefferson a Democrat-Republican and Adams as a Federalist -- and vie each other for the presidency of the young nation. After an 11-year silence, the two men began corresponding again, via letters in 1812, and would continue their friendship until their deaths on July 4, 1826. Jefferson had been on his deathbed for several days, holding out for the historic 50th anniversary of the nation's independence. Historians say he had been asking, "Is it the fourth yet?" in anticipation. Five hours later, Adams would follow. Not yet aware that Jefferson had died, Adams' final words went down in history: "Thomas Jefferson still survives." Jefferson died at the age of 83; Adams died at the age of 90.

NASA Pathfinder Lands on Mars

NASA's Pathfinder was not the first successful mission to Mars -- that honor goes to the Viking mission -- but it would change the course (and cost) of space exploration. The primary objective of the mission was to "demonstrate the feasibility of low-cost landings," according NASA's project report. With the help of parachutes, rockets and airbags, Pathfinder would be a landing success and so much more. It took one year and seven months for Pathfinder to reach Mars. And its touchdown day? July 4, 1997. The mission was scheduled to last 30 days but instead lasted three months. Pathfinder and its rover, Sojourner, yielded immense amounts of information: 8.5 million atmospheric measurements; 17,500 images; and 16 chemical analyses of rocks and soil.