If you're like us, you are eagerly awaiting those July 4 fireworks displays because you get to blow stuff up using science (not just the US, Canada too, though they picked the wrong day by using July 1 for  Canada Day celebrations) - if only we could have awesome fireworks yet not ruin the planet.

Maybe we can.  A new generation of "green" fireworks is trying to take off.  Hint: that's "green" as in environmentally friendly.  And take off as in ... oh, never mind.

Fireworks, flares and the other pyrotechnics you love include potassium perchlorate salts (potassium and ammonium) as the oxidizer and all you amateur chemists know it takes oxygen to make fireworks go boom.   Perchlorate is a pollutant with unknown effects on people and wildlife but it's probably bad. Fireworks also contain other ingredients, like color-producing heavy metals,  and those aren't great for us either in enough quantities.

best fireworks picture ever
You can't get this from 'green' fireworks.  
But how big a problem is it?

Perchlorate from pyrotechnics is not regulated and, since this is the Age of Obama, the authors of an article on the subject in Environmental Science&Technology contend that more environmentally friendly alternatives would spring up in a wave of capitalism if the government would just regulate something more, in this case perchlorate.  From pyrotechnics.   

Right, how legislating another thing out of business will result in more capitalism is beyond me too, because if the replacement is inferior we'll have to subsidize and stimulus the entire industry when people stop buying fireworks.   In truth, good fireworks that aren't ridiculously overpriced (organic,locally grown, fair trade food scam industry, I am talking to you and your $8 a dozen eggs) will sell - people care.   But in the absence of a good product, only price will matter.    McDonald's fries are cheaper now than they were 40 years ago because they're terrible thanks to eliminating the fat that made them great - but they're so cheap people eat more of them which actually is worse for world health than the animal-fat-cooked fries supposedly bad for us that needed replacing.

So government regulation is not the answer - I know that is heresy in 2009 - making a good product is.

Very little is known about the long term impact of perchlorate from pyrotechnics but the authors in Environmental Science&Technology did a study of a small lake in Ada, Oklahoma using liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry and found that, as expected, perchlorate levels spiked after the fireworks.   

A study on Canadian surface waters in the Great Lakes Basin showed no perchlorate at Hamilton Harbor a week after the fireworks from Canada Day.  Degradation or adsorption in the environment?  Some microcosm experiments show that nature herself may be cleaning it up.  So it may be a non-issue, much less a nanny government one.

We don't want to over-regulate any more industries so there's no reason for alarm but, because people want to be proactive, researchers have developed new pyrotechnic formulas that replace perchlorate with nitrogen-rich materials or nitrocellulose.  Naturally, they claim these burn cleaner and produce less smoke and are just as awesome as  current fireworks so if you smell an ethanol or MTBE fiasco, yeah, don't believe claims about 'better for the environment' and 'just as good as...' until other scientists have a chance to verify it over a longer period of time, but it's certainly worth trying on a small scale.

If greener fireworks work, they can also cut down on the amount of heavy metals used, further lowering the potentially toxic effects of pyrotechnic goodness.   They say these 'green' fireworks have been used at circuses and rock concerts but none have been used at large outdoor displays yet due to their much higher cost.

That's always the challenge.  If the environmental effects are unclear and unlikely to get you a government regulation silver spoon in the form of outlawing the competition, you have to be either better or cheaper.   People will pay for better, as WL Gore knows, since they invented a better guitar string long after people said cost was the primary factor ... and made a lot of money with them.  


Richard T. Wilkin, Dennis D. Fine, Nicole G. Burnett, 'Perchlorate Behavior in a Municipal Lake Following Fireworks Displays', Environ. Sci. Technol. 2007, 41, 3966-3971 DOI: 10.1021/es0700698