This is what happens to your body around fireworks

With the Fourth of July upon us, people all over the country are getting their grills and backyards ready for some summer fun. This year promises to be a bit more subdued in most areas of the nation, but that doesn’t mean Americans aren’t planning on celebrating as best they can. Of course, no Fourth of July celebration would be complete without a few fireworks.

If you’re planning on setting off a few rockets yourself this year, take a moment and consider the latest findings from New York University. Researchers from NYU Langone Health discovered that some of the most common fireworks available emit copper, lead, and other toxic metals (titanium, strontium) into the air when set off.

It’s those metals that give fireworks their beautiful, vibrant colors. Unfortunately, those same toxins can also inflict considerable damage if breathed in by nearby onlookers.

In all, the team at NYU examined 12 types of popular, commercially available fireworks. Of those 12, two were confirmed to emit harmful levels of lead after being lit. Moreover, experiments involving both human cells and rodents revealed that particle emissions from five of those firework types can significantly increase oxidation upon lung exposure. Oxidation can damage or kill cells.

“While many are careful to protect themselves from injury from explosions, our results suggest that inhaling firework smoke may cause longer-term damage, a risk that has been largely ignored,” says senior study author Terry Gordon, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine at NYU Langone Health, in a release.

Additionally, Gordon and his team analyzed air quality samples taken from various regions of the United States a few times each year, for a total of 14 years. Those samples were originally collected by the EPA. They discovered that the levels of toxic metals present in the air were higher pretty much all over the country each year right around both New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July.

“Although people are only exposed to these substances for a short time each year, they are much more toxic than the pollutants we breathe every day,” Professor Gordon notes.

As far as the study’s authors can tell, this is the first study to ever investigate how firework exposure affects human cells and animals. This is also the first project to test the surrounding air for metal particles after setting off some fireworks.

So, as mentioned before, the research team tested 12 different types of fireworks. Some of the varieties that were tested included the Blue Storm firecracker, the Black Cuckoo, and the Color Changing Wheel. All tested fireworks were set off in a lab setting within an enclosed chamber that captured any lingering metal particles in the air. Those particles were then exposed to a group of human lung cells and dozens of mice. 

Of all the types of fireworks tested, the Black Cuckoo won the dubious distinction of most toxic. The toxins released by this firework were 10 times more harmful to human cells than a non-toxic saline solution.

The study’s authors say their work and conclusions are just the beginning when it comes to unraveling the full spectrum of firework-related health repercussions. For example, while this study focused on one-time exposure to such toxins, more research is needed to determine the effect of repeated exposure. Although, prolonged and frequent exposure to such toxins almost assuredly promises to be even more harmful. 

Does this study mean you should avoid fireworks altogether this year? Not necessarily, but these findings are worth keeping in mind. It’s firework safety 101 to light rockets far away from bystanders and to never pick up a lit firework. Also, be sure to keep your party guests away from areas where fireworks had been set off previously for at least a few hours afterward, if not longer.

The full study can be found here, published in Particle and Fibre Toxicology.