Ban private fireworks, promote cleaner air

Jul 22 2013 - 8:51am

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Fireworks are often considered harmless Independence Day fun -- but then, bottles of water saturated with radium that were once touted as a health cure were considered harmless, too.

Of course, radium is much more noxious to human health than fireworks pollution, but pyrotechnics are by no means innocuous. This past Fourth of July, the Utah Division of Air Quality recorded 725.6 micrograms of PM 2.5 -- or fine particulate matter -- per cubic meter of air in Ogden. That is 29 times the World Health Organization limit.

A level of 725.6 micrograms per meter is far worse than Ogden's smoggy winter inversions, even worse than an airport smoking lounge. It's the kind of air quality one associates with photos of street workers wearing dust masks in Beijing, not with a moderately-sized city near a mountain range.

A ban on private fireworks displays would not solve the problem of air pollution entirely, but it would certainly help at little cost to taxpayers -- actually, with a net financial gain, since consumers would no longer be spending money on pyrotechnics.

Air pollution has been linked to increased rates of autism and poses a serious health problem to the young, the old, and those with asthma and other lung conditions. It's difficult to avoid poor air when neighbors are setting off fireworks all night long, not to mention the noise pollution that drives dogs running and keeps those with post-traumatic stress disorder on the edge of their nerves.

Some kinds of pollution are difficult to reduce; in a city with little effective mass transportation, sometimes one has to break down and drive a car to work or school. But it's easy enough to avoid setting off fireworks, and those around you with lung conditions will thank you for it. No one wants to be sent off to summer camp wheezing and coughing from particulate matter.

Each individual firework releases only small amounts of pollutants, but the quantities build up. Rogue embers from the fireworks can also begin wildfires, often causing widespread property damage and spreading plumes of smoke which can be toxic up to thousands of miles away. Especially during a hot, dry summer, wildfire is a major concern.

Pollution is only the most insidious form of damage from fireworks. Each summer, thousands of people come to the emergency room with firework-related injuries, often having burned their fingers through carelessness or failure to follow basic safety procedures. Even professionals aren't immune from such injuries; a pyrotechnician in Arizona recently suffered severe burns and head trauma when fireworks failed during a display.

A ban on private fireworks could thus improve general air quality and health in northern Utah, with only a few bad effects. Sure, it's fun to watch fireworks go off on the Fourth of July -- or even on the upcoming Pioneer Day -- but it's not fun to go into a coughing fit over particulate matter, or to see a wildfire consume a forest.

When such a trivial change can make such a difference, conserving precious air is surely the patriotic choice.

Angelica Previte will be a senior at Weber High School this fall and is an inveterate bibliophile. She can be contacted at anprevite@gmail.com.

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