In a literally explosive example of the right balance between environmental protection and people’s desire to celebrate is no environmental regulation, despite that fireworks degrade air quality with particulate matter, in the United States society has decided that the pyrotechnic festivities must go, especially after many were cancelled in the pandemic last year.

Fireworks have a storied history in the United States maybe best described in a July 3, 1776 letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail about the festivities to celebrate Independence Day,

It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

But that historic passage does not explain the skyrocketing popularity of fireworks, on Independence Day, on New Year’s Eve and for many other celebrations. Today, Americans are exploding almost one pound of fireworks each year for every man, woman and child, up from only just one-tenth of a pound annually in 1976, the bicentennial year.

With that wide public sentiment for fireworks, there is actually almost no environmental regulation for the setting off of millions of little explosions of the more than 99% of fireworks imported from China.

49 states plus DC allow some or all types of consumer fireworks (.. not Massachusetts) and to the one nearly each fireworks control law are regulating for public safety by a state fire marshall for “firework shooters, explosive blasters, explosive manufacturing, and explosive sales.” In many locales individual fireworks displays do not even require a permit.

But fireworks are an undeniable source of fine particulate matter, particles that are less than two and one half microns in diameter. And it is heavy metals that give fireworks their colors, trontium carbonate gives red, sodium nitrate produces yellow, barium chloride gives green, and my favorite copper chloride that produces blue!

However, despite the apparent irrefutable facts, all of this is very temporary and a 2015 NOAA study verifies there is a surge in fine particulate matter on the evening of July 4 (albeit at only 10 of 315 air quality monitoring stations nationwide). Levels drop back down by noon on July 5 (.. so you can breathe today), according to the research. The increases are largest from 9 – 10 p.m. on the holiday.

As result of complex chemical reactions resulting from combustion, the miniscule quantities of metals are largely aerosolized at altitude and dispersed high in the sky having no meaningful effect on people.

And not to let reality get in the way of government action, the Environmental Protection Agency had recently (but apparently no more) offered guidance on fireworks particle pollution on its website,

Most people will have no reaction when exposed to .. .. Some individuals are more sensitive than others, including possibly infants and children, individuals with respiratory conditions or allergies and asthma, ..”

As a practical matter many people who are sensitive to particle pollution heed the EPA recommendation to limit their exposure by watching fireworks from upwind or as far away as possible.

Congress has legislated the treatment of air quality data influenced by exceptional events, which includes fireworks. Each state is required to develop a State Implementation Plan for how they will control air pollution, including particulate matter, within their boundaries that exceed EPA’s particulate matter standards in “nonattainment areas.”. “Wildfires, high winds, volcanoes and fireworks” (.. a list that could only exist in a government regulation or a cognitive ability test for the term that does not belong) each are exempted from being calculated for the purposes of a State Plan under the 2016 Exceptional Events Rule (41 CFR 50.14),

“Fireworks displays. The Administrator shall exclude data from use in determinations of exceedances and violations where a State demonstrates to the Administrator’s satisfaction that emissions from fireworks displays caused a specific air pollution concentration in excess of one or more national ambient air quality standards at a particular air quality monitoring location and otherwise satisfies the requirements of this section. Such data will be treated in the same manner as exceptional events under this rule, provided a State demonstrates that such use of fireworks is significantly integral to traditional national, ethnic, or other cultural events including, but not limited to, July Fourth celebrations that satisfy the requirements of this section.”

To see how this operates, see the Rose Park, Utah Fireworks Exception Event Report, prepared under an earlier version of the rule. Such rational implementation is a good thing because it is clear that fireworks are not a real public health concern.

But, San Diego does regulate fireworks for locations near the coast, requiring expensive permits (.. that have resulted in displays being cancelled) for embers that fall into the ocean, under some Clean Water Act theory, but apparently that overreaching idea has not be replicated elsewhere.

The alternative of regulating exceptional firework displays on Independence Day and New Year’s Eve is no doubt not efficacious if not wrong. Maybe a Disneyland type daily fireworks display might be a truly special exception?

In the event there is harm, there is nothing in the non-regulatory scheme that precludes an actual damaged (e.g., embers igniting a roof) party from seeking judicial redress.

This is a good result. Fireworks that were first developed in second century BC in China, have a more than 300 year and proper place in our nation’s celebrations. Fireworks arguably do contribute to air pollution, but only very modestly over a few hours each year. Larger or more environmental regulation of this space would not serve the public good. Is it too much to wish that the regulatory balancing act displayed here, tilting toward no environmental regulation, be repeated in other instances?