Where there’s fire, there’s smoke: Fireworks are terrible for the environment, especially for air quality

By Ashley Miller

Some people just can’t fathom a 4th of July or Pioneer Day holiday without fireworks. The bright colors, loud booms and bangs are thrilling to some. But for other people (and dogs), fireworks are nothing more than a menace to our society. For people sensitive to air pollution, two weeks of July in Utah are downright scary.

The smoke produced by fireworks contains high concentrations of heavy metals, potent toxins and particulate matter (PM) pollution that troubles air quality and harms individuals in the “sensitive” group. The increased pollution lingers for hours.

And our state allows this to happen for days on end: from July 2-5 and again July 22-25. The heavy metals like barium, lithium, strontium, copper and aluminum that create the colors in the fireworks can be inhaled and can also make their way into our soil and water supply.

Every year during July the Utah Division of Air Quality sees significant spikes in particulate matter pollution concentrations from fireworks set off for the 4th and Pioneer Day holiday weeks. The spikes are more related to smaller neighborhood fireworks than larger public events. Fireworks make Utah’s air quality much worse than it already is.

The data from this year’s 4th of July period of fireworks showed extremely high levels of PM2.5. The federal threshold for unhealthy levels of PM2.5 (the pollution most typically associated with wintertime inversion season) is 35 micrograms per cubic meter. This year, similar to years past, fireworks created values of over 200 micrograms per cubic meter lasting for more than one hour. Remember, PM2.5 pollution is linked to numerous health concerns like asthma, COPD and cardiovascular disease. Even short-term exposure to levels as high as we see during fireworks can lead to serious health problems.

Fireworks also lead to the threat of wildfires. Over the 4th of July holiday weekend, fire crews responded to 68 new wildfires, and during the week of July 1-8, 18 of the 122 wildfires were caused by fireworks. With fire danger as high as it always is during this time of year and the already troubled airshed, maybe we should all rethink before lighting up.


Ashley Miller, J.D., is the vice-chair of Breathe Utah. She is also the vice-chair of Utah’s Air Quality Policy Advisory Board and a member of the Salt Lake County Environmental Quality Advisory Commission.

This article was originally published on August 2, 2020.