Fireworks Smoke Is Coming for Our Already Smoky Cities
Will air quality anxiety make us rethink the Fourth of July?
Of all the topics I’ve become an expert on in the past month — carbon-fiber submersible hulls; Yevgeny Prigozhin; the cultural evolution of orcas — by far the least useless has been the Air Quality Index.
While I used to have a caveman-like grasp of the AQI scale (red! bad!), multiple “smoke events” in the Midwest and East have since made me hyperaware of what I’m inhaling. Now I’m a person with opinions about the merits and limitations of AirNow vs. Purple Air vs. IQAir. I make observations like “it’s gonna be a hazy one” out loud to myself on the subway platform. A neglected Wirecutter-recommended air purifier, purchased after an apartment fire (long story), has been re-established in my living room.
It is as one newly-minted AQI aficionado to another, then, that I wanted to let you know to prepare for degraded air quality on the Fourth of July. Not because wildfire smoke is blowing back into the United States — though it might be doing that, too — but because nationwide, Independence Day and July 5 are often the highest average particulate pollution days of the year due to fireworks. In fact, The Washington Post has had to caveat its coverage of the smoke over D.C., saying "Thursday was D.C.’s third-highest non-4th of July smoke pollution on record" (emphasis added).
Before you come at me for trying to “cancel the Fourth of July,” understand that I have a solemn respect for our God-given right as Americans to gloat over the British by blowing stuff up. Some of my most cherished childhood memories, in fact, are of contributing to the sulphuric fog that would hang over the unincorporated lake where we’d go to shoot off mortars as kids. (Still hate Piccolo Pete’s, though).
But fireworks also release a lot of PM2.5, tiny particulates that can penetrate deep into our lungs and wreak who-knows-what-kind of havoc on our bodies, and that is also released by wildfires. PM2.5 is, importantly, one of several pollutants factored into the AQI. New owners of air quality monitors, purchased to keep an eye on recent wildfire smoke conditions, might notice readings tick up into the “unhealthy” or “very unhealthy” territory on Tuesday night due to the celebrations.
In particular, the stuff that makes fireworks so pretty — heavy metals like copper, lead, sulfur, aluminum, arsenic, and iron dust — are not exactly things you want to be inhaling. Though recent research on daily mortality and fireworks-related air pollution has been so far inconclusive and is ongoing, one 1975 study found an 113% increase in respiratory illness treatments on the Fourth of July, the New York Post points out.
What that also tells us is that we’ve known about the air pollution from fireworks for years. That there hasn’t been a bigger public expression of concern might depend on a variety of things: that firework smoke pollution decreases rapidly after the 5th so exposure is fairly limited, but also that the fun of fireworks outweighs their (mostly invisible) tolls. It’s also very likely that relatively healthy Americans just haven’t paid that much attention to air quality before.
Now, though, that’s changing.
Interest in air quality began to spike in 2018 — then the largest, deadliest, and most-destructive wildfire season in California history — and grew further in 2020 when smoke turned San Francisco orange, Bloombergdeclared “smoke apps [are] the new weather apps,” and Apple added air quality recommendations to the iPhone’s native Weather app. Attention to air quality spread east this spring when New York City broke the national wildfire air pollution record. This week, the Canadian wildfire smoke returned and put more than 100 million Americans — nearly a third of the country, from the midwest to Vermont and as far south as North Carolina — under air quality alerts. In New York, the sky once again took on a sickly yellow-gray look and dramatic red sunsets returned; Midwestern cities had the worst air quality in the world earlier this week. As a result, many Americans are paying closer attention to the AQI than ever before; many others are paying attention for the first time.
A number of cities are reportedly reconsidering their fireworks shows as a result of the latest plume of wildfire smoke. “If [the Fourth of July] was today, we’d cancel,” the mayor of the Cleveland suburb of Solon, Ohio, told Cleveland.com on Wednesday, when the local AQI was around 244. “It is impossible for us to predict what will happen for the holiday celebrations on Monday and Tuesday the Fourth,” New York Governor Kathy Hochul similarly warned her state on Thursday, adding that residents ought to be “very, very vigilant before you plan your outdoor activities.” In Montreal, Canada Day firework displays, scheduled for Saturday night, were preemptively scrapped.
Of course, the irony of all this fuss is that sitting near a firework display has about the same effect as sitting in moderately dense wildfire smoke. I’m not saying either is a brilliant idea; the two compounded, certainly, would be rough on the lungs. But in the great American tradition of being free to make reckless decisions about our own bodies, it’s likely most celebrants this year will have to navigate these kinds of decisions for themselves.
After all, what could be more patriotic than that?