I love fireworks. I don’t just enjoy them, I love them.

I love the way they fill up the whole sky, hang in the air and make time slow down, like bubbles, or crazy stop-frame animation. I love the way they fill space in 3D, the way they blossom and then fade to a dirty smudge in an instant. They are the closest humanity has got to making magic. And I love that this is ancient technology, that people have been marvelling at them for thousands of years, exactly as I do.

So much pleasure can’t be without sin, surely! So I’ve kind of avoided knowing too much, assuming that their environmental impact must be huge and I really ought to disapprove. What is the price of this magic?

First, I’ve failed to find an answer that’s a number. I’m looking for grammes of CO2-equivalent per kg of firework (or gCO2e/kg firework). But no – like so much else in this world, it depends. A trawl of responses from fireworks companies online comes up with some rather cagey arguments. The major component in gunpowder or ‘black powder’ is charcoal, which at face value can be claimed to be carbon neutral since it’s made from wood. But that’s too easy: what about the energy taken to make the charcoal, and in the manufacturing, and in the mining of the metals that make the colours. And, oh no!, what about the ethics of the factories in, where else, China.

About those colours that enthrall us. Apparently, aluminium gives white and silver sparkles and Alzheimer’s, barium gives greens and respiratory problems, blues from cesium and carcinogenic copper compounds, antimony sulphide produces the glittering effects, and bright red colours come from lithium (like in those batteries that have to be disposed of in hazardous waste?) and strontium which can cause bone disorders. Perchlorate, used as an oxidizer, is known to inhibit the uptake of iodine by the thyroid gland.  Like most health warnings, I’m taking this with a pinch of salt – everything else is in there! I’m not eating them, and I’m not (sadly) embarking on a career as a pyrotechnic.

What to do? One story recommends wearing breathing masks at fireworks displays. I can meet this halfway, with a scarf: I’ll be holding my breath, mostly. 

Seems like we’re approaching the end of an era and fireworks might be one of those things we tell our disbelieving grandkids about, like lead pipes, life before the internet and sailing ships*. In this electronic age, maybe we’ll finally move on to cold, digital laser shows. But while we still have them I’m planning on making the most of fireworks, because if we’re not enjoying them, that truly is a waste.   

That’s what I think. What do you think? 

- Sitar 

*Hang on, sailing ships might make a comeback, so there will still be some magic in the air. Hurrah! 

Some of my references: UK Pyrotechnics Society forum and the Guardian: Enough of Those Toxic Displays and Should Fireworks be Banned on Environmental Grounds?