Fire in the Sky: A Global Plague

The Shots Heard ‘Round the World

World Reports

With New Year’s celebrations behind us and Independence Day festivities looming on the horizon, the smoldering issue of fireworks-and-the-environment promises to spark a renewed round of partisan pyrotechnics.

The Journal’s pioneering report on fireworks displays and air pollution (Summer 2000) was picked up in the July 2 edition of the New York Times. In its report, the Times quoted Clarkson University Chemistry Professor Philp K. Iiopke who called fireworks “a threat” to children and people suffering from asthma or cardiopulmonary diseases. The Canadian press also published our report, and interviewed Journal Editor Gar Smith on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s daily news show “As It Happens.” Here are some updates on the story.

In March 2000, the Dutch Environmental Ministry proposed a fireworks tax to reduce contamination of the air, water and soil.

In Hawai’i, the state Health Department conducted air samples during the New Year’s fireworks displays and reported that the pyrotechnics produced “as much as ten times as much smoke as was recorded the previous year.” Hospitals were flooded with residents suffering from respiratory problems, and Health Department Director Bruce Anderson condemned fireworks as “a serious health concern.”

The Honolulu Advertiser quoted a Health Department warning that fine-particle pollutants from fireworks “are especially dangerous because they penetrate deeply into the lungs, aggravating heart and lung conditions, changing the body’s normal defenses against inhaled material and damaging lung tissue.” Health problems stemming from even short-term exposures were found to “last two to three weeks.”

The Advertiser editorialized that New Year’s fireworks shows have become “an intolerable intrusion on the rights of all people to breathe comfortably, to be free of ear-splitting, virtually continuous explosions…. The time has come to call a halt.” Hawai’ians are now debating an outright ban on fireworks.

The Times of India reports that the use of fireworks by Hindus celebrating their annual Diwali festival releases “4,000 metric tons of garbage, comprising burnt paper and chemicals like phosphorous, sulfur and potassium chlorate” into the atmosphere, turning a festival of light and gaiety into a night of “smoke, coughing and wheezing.”

The Times noted that fireworks are produced by thousands of children working in sweatshop conditions. The Delhi-based South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude has called on Hindu revelers to abandon fireworks and celebrate Diwali “by lighting lamps and not burning precious childhood.”

In the last year of his administration, President Clinton imposed a ban on the importation of lead-bearing fireworks. The ban went into effect in August 2001, but the dangers persist.

On December 30, 2001, an explosion in a crowded downtown neighborhood in Lima, Peru, unleashed a pyrotechnic firestorm that reached temperatures of 1,100 F and killed 235 people.

On March 6, 2001, a schoolhouse in the Chinese village of Fang Lin in Jiangxi province exploded, killing 43 people, including 37 children. Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji blamed the tragedy on a lone “madman” bent on suicide. Zhu Rongji later had to apologize on national television after reporters revealed that the children, some as young as eight years old, had been forced to assemble fireworks during school hours. School officials admitted that they had been compelled to turn the students into workers to pay the bills for their under-funded school.

Fireworks continue to be made by some of the most underpaid workers in the world.

The next time you pause to light a July Fourth firecracker to celebrate freedom and independence, pause a moment to ask an important question: “Were these fireworks assembled by the hands of children?”

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