YRE Article 15–18 years old: 2nd Place

FIREWORKS — BEAUTIFUL ENVIRONMENTAL VILLAINS (Sweden)

Millions of fireworks are set off around the world on special occasions such as New Year. Although this is a tradition that is both colourful and impressive, it results in all kinds of environmental problems. Air pollution, plastic residues, and metal deposits on land and in water are just some of the consequences of New Year celebrations, yet these are often forgotten in order to maintain the celebratory tradition of fireworks.

It’s New Year’s Eve. The clock has just struck midnight and the world is lit up with hundreds of colours. As the fireworks whistle and explode with a bang in the night sky, people cheer. Pink, green, white, and blue — the colours adorn the sky long into the wee hours. Although a firework lasts only a few seconds, its legacy is much longer.

Fireworks were first conceived in China in the seventh century to ward off evil spirits. It took until the 17th century before they became commonplace in Europe. New Year fireworks are a relatively new tradition in Sweden, but one that has really caught on. I ask the pupils at Nacka upper secondary school if they set off fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Of the 120 pupils I asked, 51 say “yes”, 35 “sometimes”, and 34 “no”. In other words, only around a quarter do not set off fireworks as a New Year tradition. When asked if they think fireworks are an important part of the celebration, 80% say yes.

The results of the survey show how popular fireworks are, which makes me wonder if the pupils are aware of their environmental impact. It may be exciting to see the fuse catch light and then explode in a cloud of sparks, but the consequences are grave.

In the article “Nyårsraketer bakom chockhöga luftföroreningar i Tyskland” (“New Year fireworks cause sky-high air pollution in Germany”) by Mathias Gerdfeldter (SVT Nyheter, 4 January 2017), I read that in 2016, New Year fireworks in Germany had emissions equivalent to 15% of the country’s annual particulate emissions from motor vehicles. This poses more than just a health hazard. Soot particles block sunlight and exacerbate the greenhouse effect, which has been reported in “Partiklarna som får isen att smälta” (“The particles that make the ice melt”) (Sveriges Radio, 12 January 2017). Fireworks also elevate concentrations of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which have several long-term effects on the environment.

According to an article by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, “Fakta om svaveldioxid i luft” (“Facts about sulphur dioxide in the air”) (8 July 2019), sulphur dioxide oxidises in the atmosphere to form sulphuric acid, which can cause the acidification of soil and water. Many species are sensitive to changes in pH values and are at risk of dying. This in turn affects the entire ecosystem. Nitrogen oxides can also cause acidification, as well as contribute to the formation of a ground-level ozone. High concentrations result in sharp declines in crop yields and are harmful to plants and animals by, for example, hampering photosynthesis and irritating the mucosa of the airways.

Pyrotechnics has evolved over the years. Today, firework colours are created through the combustion of various metals. A report published by the Swedish Environmental Administration in March 2000 shows that airborne concentrations of chromium, nickel, and strontium were around 400 to 500 times higher than normal at the turn of the millennium. This report is one of the most notable and is still relevant. There were also elevated levels of arsenic during New Year celebrations.

I call Lars Burman, an environmental investigator at the Environmental Administration and one of those who compiled the report.

“When the metals have served their purpose in the fireworks, they quickly fall down to the ground. The elevated concentrations have unfortunate consequences for nature, because the environment’s naturally occuring destroyers cannot break them down and they remain in the natural cycle,” he explains.

Many of the metals released by fireworks are environmentally hazardous or toxic at high concentrations. Arsenic, for example, is highly toxic to several organisms, while aluminium can attach to the gills of fish and suffocate them.

“The metals pose a risk of health problems for several life forms. In concentrated amounts they can even result in death,” says Lars.

Many of the metals released by fireworks are environmentally hazardous or toxic at high concentrations. Arsenic, for example, is highly toxic to several organisms, while aluminium can attach to the gills of fish and suffocate them.

“The metals pose a risk of health problems for several life forms. In concentrated amounts they can even result in death,” says Lars.

The metallic poisons bind to the enzymes of organisms, which impedes their function and can interrupt several vital processes. These poisons can then continue to infiltrate different species, as they do not disappear, which is especially problematic for those at the top of the food chain, as the higher up the food chain you get, the higher the concentrations. The end result is that the entire ecosystem is affected and can continue to be long after the fireworks are set off. SDG 15 of the UN’s sustainable development goals is to preserve ecosystems and biodiversity. Fireworks jeopardise our chances of a sustainable future.

The shops start preparing their stocks of fireworks several weeks before New Year’s Eve. Although the number of shops selling them has fallen, I still see piles of boxes filled with fireworks in attractive packaging that lures consumers with their vibrant colours. Companies in Sweden are demanding that certain chemicals be prohibited in fireworks, but when I e-mail Conny Lerjevik, inspector at the Swedish Chemicals Agency, he says:

“There’s no guarantee that these chemicals are not present. For example, we believe that mercury is present due to the poor conditions at some factories in China. In addition, the Swedish Chemicals Agency last checked the content of fireworks sold in Sweden in 2015. “

Almost all fireworks contain plastic parts. When they explode, these parts can be projected very long distances. Plastic breaks down extremely slowly, and many animals mistake it for food, which can cause suffocation and death. The article “Plastic in Our Oceans is Killing Marine Animals” (WWF, 11 October 2018 ) states that roughly 100,000 marine species die every year due to plastic pollution, and I wonder if fireworks contribute to this.

Fireworks have a wide-reaching impact on the environment. A more environmentally friendly alternative could be to celebrate New Year with a laser show instead. It’s quiet and emission-free, can be just as spectacular, and has an even broader spectrum of colours. Such a laser show is held in Söderhamn each year, where beautifully synchronised colours streak across the sky to create dramatic shapes that the public have come to love.

Fireworks are much more than colourful sparks. They have many consequences for the environment and jeopardise our chances of achieving a sustainable future. As New Year’s Eve approaches, it’s important to make conscious choices and think about whether a few seconds of colour in the sky is worth the long-term impact.

Lina Tuving, 16, Nacka upper secondary school

References:

Burman, Lars (2000). Förhöjda halter av metaller i luften (Elevated concentrations of metals in the air). Report from SLB-analys, Stockholm. Accessed on 2 December 2019. Available at: http://slb.nu/slb/rapporter/pdf8/slb2000_003.pdf

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Globala målen (UN Global Goals). Accessed on 5 December 2019. Available at: https://www.globalamalen.se/

Gerdfeldter, Mathias. Nyårsraketer bakom chockhöga luftföroreningar i Tyskland (New Year fireworks cause sky-high air pollution in Germany). SVT Nyheter, 4 January 2017. Accessed on 25 November 2019. Available at: https://www.svt.se/nyheter/utrikes/nyarsraketer-bakom-chockhoga-luftfororeningar-i-tyskland

Harrison, Dick. Historiebloggen, Fyrverkeriets historia (The history blog: The history of Fireworks). 31 December 2013. Accessed on 28 November 2019. Available at: http://blog.svd.se/historia/2013/12/31/fyrverkeriets-historia/https://varldenshistoria.se/vetenskap/nyarsraketen-har-ar-historien-bakom-knallen

Hedin, Lotta. Tusen ton nyårsraketer förorenar nyårsluften (A thousand ton of New Year fireworks pollute the air. Testfakta, 29 December 2016. Accessed on 25 November 2019. Available at: https://www.testfakta.se/sv/kropp-halsa/article/tusen-ton-nyarsraketer-fororenar-nyarsluften

The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (2019). Fakta om svaveldioxid i luft (Facts about sulfur dioxide in the air). Accessed on 29 November 2019. Available at: https://www.naturvardsverket.se/Sa-mar-miljon/Klimat-och-luft/Luftfororeningar/Svaveldioxid/

Thelander, Jeanette (2016). Många faror med fyrverkerier (The many dangers of fireworks). Sveriges Radio, 30 December 2016. Accessed on 28 November 2019. Available at: https://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=96&artikel=6598700

Zettersten, Pelle (2017). Partiklarna som får isen att smälta (The particles that make the ice melt. Sveriges Radio, 12 January 2017. Accessed on 29 November 2019) Available at: https://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=3345&artikel=6606580

Wikipedia (2018). Marknära Ozon (Ground-level ozone) Accessed on 29 November 2019. Available at: https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Markn%C3%A4ra_ozon

WWF (2018). Plastic in Our Oceans Are Killing Marine Mammals. Accessed on 5 December 2019. Available at: https://www.wwf.org.au/news/blogs/plastic-in-our-oceans-is-killing-marine-mammals#gs.lgfnzz

Sharing the winning entries of the Int. Young Reporters for the Environment (YRE) Competition and the Litter Less Campaign (LLC) Competition. See www.yre.global