Although the official midpoint of summer occurs on August 7 (because the summer solstice is on June 21), a lot of us consider the Fourth of July the season’s middle marker. That’s probably because as the only big holiday in the summer, we look forward to the traditional backyard barbecues and picnics with family and friends, community celebrations, concerts and parades. While I, too, happily anticipate all those festivities, there’s one Fourth of July custom I can do without: fireworks.
My feelings about fireworks have to do with my pets. I have shared my home and life with many dogs and cats over the years, and not one of them was wild about the sounds of fireworks going off. My current fur family member, a greyhound named Luna, is absolutely terrified of the loud noises and spends the holiday—as well as the week before it and the week after it, as neighbors start setting off fireworks days early and stop them days later—frantic and panting.
What I’m learning now, though, is that as bad as it is for many of our pets, the impact of fireworks on the wider environment and wildlife can be on a much larger scale.
In a study that was published in the science journal Pacific Conservation Biology on January 31, 2023, researchers from Curtin University in Perth, Australia, examined the environmental toll of firework displays by reviewing the ecological effects of Diwali festivities in India, Fourth of July celebrations across the United States, and other events in New Zealand and parts of Europe.
Specific examples that the scientists looked at included fireworks in Spanish festivals impacting the breeding success of house sparrows, Fourth of July firework displays implicated in the decline of Brandt’s cormorant colonies in California, and South American sea lions changing their behavior during breeding season because of New Year’s fireworks in Chile.
Results showed that, unfortunately, the annual timing of some large-scale firework events coincides with the migratory or reproductive movements of wildlife and, therefore, most likely have adverse, long-term population effects on them.
This echoes what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has to say about fireworks. According to that agency, the shock of fireworks can cause wildlife to flee, ending up in unexpected areas or roadways, flying into buildings and other obstacles, and even abandoning nests, leaving young vulnerable to predators. The threat to wildlife doesn’t stop at startling lights and sounds; fireworks also have the potential of starting wildfires, directly affecting wildlife and destroying essential habitats. Litter from bottle rockets, firecrackers and other explosives can be choking hazards for wildlife and may be toxic if ingested.
Predatory birds, such as bald eagles, often see the lights and harsh sounds from fireworks as threats and may abandon their nests or habitats entirely. The explosions may cause other birds to take off en masse for prolonged periods of time and to use up vital energy reserves needed for survival. Fireworks have even frightened birds into flying so far out to sea that they didn’t have the energy to make the return flight. Wild birds frightened by the noise of fireworks will also fly higher and for longer, which exposes them to the harmful cocktail of ingredients in fireworks that have caused cardiovascular and respiratory damage—and even death—in humans.
According to Earth.org, an environmental news and data platform, when the chemicals from fireworks are burned and exposed to oxygen, they undergo a chemical reaction called combustion, which produces toxic atmospheric pollutants, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen, ozone, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter (PM). This host of contaminants affect air quality and can contribute to climate change. But they not only pollute the air but the soil and water, too, which has implications for human as well as animal health.
For example, during the five-day celebration of Diwali in India—the world-famous festival of lights—about 50,000 tons, or 100 million pounds, of fireworks explode, causing a toxic haze to cover cities. Toxic hazes, also known as particle pollution, are created by PM, a combination of minuscule liquid and solid substances found in the air and considered the most hazardous air pollutant due to its ability to affect a person’s heart and lungs, along with causing environmental damage. In the case of India, PM found in the country’s air increased up to 35 times on celebration days when fireworks were present compared to normal days.
Future faux fireworks
Sadly for me and Luna, fireworks remain popular around the world, despite the overwhelming evidence that they negatively affect domestic animals, the environment and wildlife.
However, there are some solutions for decreasing the damage fireworks cause:
• Traditional fireworks could be replaced with greener and safer alternatives, such as drone displays—like the one seen at the opening of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics—or laser-light shows.
• Firework bans during sensitive times for wildlife, such as mating periods and migration, could limit the harmful impacts.
I’m convinced that Fourth of July community events could surely be revamped to be safer and healthier for us, for our pets, for wildlife and for the Earth. It is clear that outdated explosives and firework displays need to be replaced by cleaner, greener options.
This summer, I wish you and your four-footed family members a very happy, healthy—and anxiety-free—Fourth of July.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,