has been shooting pyrotechnic chemicals into the evening sky since
shortly after the amusement park opened in 1955. In the beginning, the
fireworks shows were confined to weekends and school vacations. In
2000, the park added its third fireworks show. With the debut of
Disneyland’s New California Adventures, the blazing tracers and
wall-shaking blasts of exploding skyrockets have become nearly nightly
Many long-time park neighbors claim that the trajectories of the skyrockets used to be very high but that, in recent years, the rockets have been bursting so low that smoke and cinders become trapped beneath the local inversion layer. Park officials insist that “nothing has changed.”
On summer weekends, Disneyland schedules three fireworks shows a night. Park officials recently asked the City of Anaheim for permission to add another 60 nights of pyrotechnics per year. Disneyland officials claim that the park’s fire-in-the-sky shows last about five minutes. Neighbors, however, have clocked shows lasting from ten to 15 minutes during the summer tourist season.
In the battle over tourist dollars, pyrotechnics are being dispersed with greater frequency. Southern California tourist attractions like Edison Field, Knott’s Berry Farm and the Santa Monica Pier all have adopted pyrotechnics displays to increase attendance. San Diego’s Sea World plans to set off fireworks shows 150 nights a year.
University of Utah Meteorology Professor Kevin D. Perry tagged the chemicals used in pyrotechnics and showed that, in mild weather, the heavy metals traveled 100 km (62 miles) downwind over a two-day period. Among the pollutants traced were: strontium, vanadium, potassium, titanium, barium, copper, lead, magnesium, aluminum and zinc. These releases increase toxic levels in the air mix of the Los Angeles, Orange County, Riverside and San Diego basins. The environmental impacts are not confined to the air since these heavy metals also fall into local watersheds.
A study in the June 28, 2001 issue of Nature explained how the superheated sulfuric gasses released into the sky during pyrotechnic reactions can create ozone.
The Southern California Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) has studied how auto exhaust combines with moist marine air to form airborne irritants. But fireworks, which release significant amounts of sulfur and soot, have not been studied by the SCAQMD staff.
On February 19, in response to persistant citizen complaints, SCAQMD issued a statement declaring that the park’s three fireworks shows “did not exceed any acute or chronic Reference Exposure Level established by the state.”
In any event, the SCAQMD pointed out that a 1992 ruling “specifically exempts ‘pyrotechnic equipment, special effects or fireworks” from air quality permit regulation.
If approved by the California Coastal Commission, SeaWorld would send even more fireworks into the sky, peppering coastal waters with chemical fallout. SeaWorld’s existing displays are already plaguing the theme park’s neighbors. As resident Dino Russo complained to the Los Angeles Times, “Nobody wants to do a chemical analysis of this.”
It’s a Smelly World, After All
The City of Anaheim has made no attempt to reduce or regulate the fireworks fallout, despite the letters and calls from Disneyland’s downwind neighbors who have complained about the noise, smell and debris from the park. The city’s lack of action may be explained by the fact that Disneyland provides a significant source of municipal tax revenue. Anaheim pulls in revenue from a sales tax on every item sold in the park.
Anaheim officials respond by noting that Disneyland has broken no laws. The city can say this because there are no laws restricting pyrotechnic pollution. Anaheim defines excessive noise as being a “continuous sound” lasting ten minutes or longer at 60 decibels or higher. Even though the Disneyland displays can last as long as 15 minutes, explosive bursts from fireworks only last a second, so they are not covered by the law.
The National Institutes of Health warns that firecrackers (which can produce 145 decibels) can cause hearing loss at a single exposure. Disneyland, however, is not cited for explosions that are much louder than firecrackers. This noise does not stop at park boundaries.
The removal of sound-muffling urban “softscape” (trees, lawns, bushes) and the increase in “hardscape” (buildings, roads, parking lots) has magnified the “sound bounce” of the exploding rockets throughout the Central Orange County region. Disneyland has planted new palm trees and decorative plants, but these additions have failed to match the sound-softening effect of the original uprooted foliage.
While airports such as Los Angeles International recognize their responsibility to compensate neighborhoods impacted by aircraft noise, for-profit entertainment parks are not held to the same level of accountability.
Hey, That’s Not Pixie Dust!
In September 2001, Compaq Computer Corp. sponsored the mounting of a spectacular new pyrotechnic show at Disneyland, “Believe… There’s Magic in The Stars.” A Compaq press release hailed the show as “the largest fireworks display” in the park’s history.
While the new show may draw “Oohs” and “Aahs” from park visitors, it elicits “Ughs” and “Yucks” from the park’s besieged neighbors. On show nights, it is impossible to see the stars - let alone the “magic” - as clouds of acrid smoke move through the neighborhood, so thick the smoke obscures street lights.
In response to citizen’s complaints, Anaheim Fire Department Chief Jeff Bowman replies that his department “does not have the resources, the knowledge or the wherewithal to review the fallout.”
Disney, which does have the wherewithal, prepared its own study. It concluded that the fallout would cause a cancer risk to fewer than two people out of a million.
An investigation by the Daily Titan, the California State University at Fullerton student newspaper, painted a grim picture of the downwinders’ life. “Every night for 200 straight days…, the stench of eye-watering, sulfur-laden black smoke has made living downwind of Disneyland unbearable” for the families whose low-income neighborhood adjoins “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
When night falls, families are forced to “shelter in place” as the clear summer night air is replaced with “a dark, smoggy haze often 10-stories-high and half-a-mile wide.”
“My wife has asthma, and I have two kids that have asthma,” resident Alejandro Robles, told the Titan. “When the fireworks go off, it really affects them and they have to go inside the house.”
“When the fireworks explode, the neighborhood turns into a wartime movie set,” the Titan related. “People start to run for cover as ashes from the fireworks rain onto their cars and homes. Car alarms whistle and scream as dogs yelp and babies cry in the darkness.”
Some residents have experienced disturbing “flash-backs” to their days as combat soldiers in the Vietnam War.
Disneyland refuses to release any information on the ingredients that go into its nightly fireworks shows. Pyro Spectaculars Inc., which makes Disneyland’s fireworks, also refuses to divulge what goes into their products.
Officials at the state’s Occupational Health and Safety Commission informed the Titan’s reporters that “it is not [the agency’s] responsibility to handle complaints or to divulge information to the general public.” Some politicians, however, are starting to take note of residents’ complaints. State Assemblyman Ken Maddox and US Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez have expressed interest in the neighbors’ plight.
While Disneyland’s managers may not be overly concerned about quality-of-life issues in the neighborhoods surrounding the park, they are very solicitous of the wellbeing of their paying customers. During the shows, large sections of the park are closed to the public because of the danger posed by falling debris. Afterwards, park employees quickly move in with special heavy-duty vacuums to remove all traces of the blackened, smelly debris before visitors are allowed back inside.
The damage to the paint jobs on residents’ cars is readily apparent but the damage to their health is not. The sulfur in the smoke can combine with moisture to create sulfuric acid, which destroys painted surfaces. The sulfuric acid - mixed with a witch’s brew of heavy metals - eventually falls to the ground and seeps into the water table.
These heavy metals bio-accumulate, says California State Fullerton environmental chemist Harold Rogers. “If you are exposed to it over a long period of time… it gets into the body,” Rogers told the Titan. “It could take years, even decades, before a body starts to show symptoms.”
A realistic assessment of the damage to people living downwind would require hearing exams and costly blood tests, which the area’s low-income residents cannot afford.
A neighborhood watchdog group called HOME (Home Owners Maintaining their Environment) has complained about the smoke, the ash and the damage to their homes and cars. HOME says these complaints have been ignored.
“SCAQMD officials maintain that they have not received sufficient complaints to conduct an investigation,” the Titan was told. Anaheim Police Department spokesperson Rick Martinez informed the Titan that the police don’t handle fireworks complaints. “We ask them to deal with Disneyland directly.”
When Titan reporters went to Disneyland directly, they discovered that: “As is their standard practice, officials at the theme park would not comment on the possible health hazards of their fireworks.”
City officials insist that tourism is a clean industry but they can only make such claims because the pollution these fireworks create has never been adequately measured.
On February 19, SCAQMD finally agreed to begin testing for “airborne particulate matter… at suitable locations in the neighborhood areas bordering the Disneyland Resort.”
Amy Davis, a retired teacher, has spent more than $18,000 on insulation and double-paned windows to protect her home from the reverberations of the Magic Kingdom. She has campaigned for regulation of the park’s fireworks displays and strict enforcement of the city’s anti-noise requirements. Davis, who also is an artist, was surprised to learn that fireworks contain some of the same heavy metals that are used in watercolors. These pigments, Davis notes, “came under regulation in the 1970s.” While her watercolors “are contained on paper, behind glass,” fireworks allow the same pigments to be “thrown into the winds.”
We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate
Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.