Ban the bombs? Shell-shocked second thoughts about the 4th of July

Filthy air, toxic fallout, pets and wildlife terrorized, boats and houses scorched; this boom-boom mania has to stop. But how can cities prohibit fireworks when they also sponsor them?
Crosscut archive image.

Fireworks stands at Tulalip.

Filthy air, toxic fallout, pets and wildlife terrorized, boats and houses scorched; this boom-boom mania has to stop. But how can cities prohibit fireworks when they also sponsor them?

Hands are wringing over the inflammatory ravages of this latest Fourth of July boom-boom fest: 14 boats, worth an estimated $1.5 million, torched by a wayward whiz-banger on Lake Union. Two roofs scorched in wealthy Windermere (playing with bombs and rockets evidently cuts across class lines). At least 12 brush fires in Renton alone. Forty-two fireworks-related incidents that elicited police response in Puyallup, including a $40,000 stash of illegal pyrotechnics found in one garage. Hundreds of calls to the Seattle Police — none of which, I’ll bet, they could do anything about. One 26-year-old firebug (Darwin’s pyrotechnician) who inflicted severe burns on his arms and legs with a home-made sparkler bomb. And, doubtless, much, much more that the Seattle Times wasn’t able to uncover for its morning-after roundup.

The impacts of our annual mass fireworks orgy extend far beyond torched garages and amputated fingers. There’s the mass misery of millions of noise-hammered dogs across the land; those in my neighborhood — some of them kept, badly, by the idiots who were setting off the loudest crackers — were still jumpy, whining and moaning the next day. And though we don’t hear or see them, wild critters suffer similarly. The West Sound Wildlife Shelter reports an upsurge in calls about disoriented animals wandering into roads and other unfamiliar and unsafe places each Fourth. Ground-nesting birds panic and flee, leaving their chicks to die. In Holland, which enjoys blessed peace on July 4, researchers found that hundreds of thousands of birds panic and take flight during New Year’s Eve fireworks. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that East Coast fireworks are “highly disturbing” to threatened piping plovers, which also abandon their nests.

And then there are the human effects, even for those of us who choose not to risk our fingers and eardrums. Celebrity meteorologist Cliff Mass reports that on the Fourth, levels of fine particulates (the ones that wreak carcinogenic, emphysemic, and asthmatic hell on your lungs and heart) rose from a baseline 10 micrograms per cubic meter to 60 mcg/m3 in the Duwamish Valley, an “UNHEALTHY” 120  in Lynnwood, and 275 — “getting close to Beijing levels” — on the Tacoma flats.

The concentrations are much higher near fireworks shows. No one seems to have tested the air at Gasworks Park post-show, but one researcher did after a fireworks competition at a Montreal amusement park. Particulate levels there spiked above 10,000 mcg/m3 and stayed above 1,000 — Beijing at its worst — for 45 minutes.

Mass didn’t mention the stew of materials, many toxic and some possibly radioactive, added to fireworks to produce colors and help their charcoal and sulfur fuel burn: cadmium, strontium, barium, lithium, lead, perchlorates and sodium nitrate, plus more benign copper and aluminum compounds that can still have knock-on effects. The quantities released at holiday fireworks shows are presumed to be too small to be damaging; there doesn’t seem to be good data disproving or confirming that presumption. But since many are elemental metals, they’ll endure and accumulate, in water bodies, food webs, and us. The more the scarier.

We certainly seem to be getting more fireworks of the informal, illegal kind. It’s a subjective finding, of course, no doubt influenced by proximity bias. But this year’s boom-boom seemed to blow louder and longer than any I can remember, at least outside Cholon, Saigon’s Chinatown. The unofficial blasts picked up after the official shows ended around 11 and continued from several sides, occasionally rattling windows, until at least 1:30 a.m. (They seemed however to die off sooner than usual in the days that followed. Maybe the firebugs had shot their wads.) A friend in Wallingford said the noise seemed worse there as well. Today’s firecrackers are “bigger, much more powerful and designed to make a louder boom,” a police captain in Puyallup (he should know) told the Times.

And they’re illegal, in Seattle and many neighboring cities — for all that it matters. To nab fireworks offenders, “we need [not general complaints but] specific descriptions of people doing specific things,” a Seattle Police spokesperson told the Times. As if SPD could and would do anything with such information. It’s too overwhelmed on the Fourth to deal even with felonies. On that day last year, under cover of noise, someone kicked in our back door, the only break-in here in 15 years. (All he got was three cheap power saws, two of them broken. Serves you right, sucker.) I couldn’t even get through on 911. Want to get away with crime? You know when to do it.

So what’s to be done? It seems unlikely that the authorities will succeed in enforcing fireworks bans at the consumer level, short of martial law and troops on every corner. (We’ll hardly hear them if they come in with guns blazing.) Cordons and spot checks around the reservations, to prevent buyers from taking fireworks off them? The tribes could host Fourth of July parties and let customers go crazy there, if they really want the business. But that would take new state law, and invite lawsuits over discrimination and probable cause.

Neighborhood vigilantes could dampen local blasts with Super Soakers and super-long garden hoses. They shouldn’t count on the cops showing up to defend them.

It all comes back to the legal public shows. One motive for them is to divert folks from setting off their own more dangerous, uncontrolled shows. But they also afford cover and inspiration to every idiot wanting to be his own firemaster; it’s a copycat crime with the city as the cat to copy.

Fireworks are like cigarettes: something we’d never allow if we were starting fresh today, but too deeply embedded in culture, habit and commerce to be easily, perhaps ever, eliminated. And they’re red meat for culture-warmongers. In 2010 an environmental foundation sued the City of La Jolla to stop firework shows it claimed were polluting a protected coastline. Conservative commentators predictably decried such unpatriotic, nanny-statist meddling in what one called “the latest great American tradition to get caught in the cross-hairs of the environmental ‘green’ movement, joining the long-despised hamburgers, SUVs, and indoor air conditioning." Alas, unlike burgers and (for now) SUVs, this great American tradition is entirely Made in China.

I admit, I enjoy a good fireworks show, even a mediocre one, as much as the next patriotic non-SUV driver. I’ll never forget sitting on a haystack in Maine, cradling my young daughter and crooning “The Star-Spangled Banner” while the small-town rockets glared red. But I used to enjoy tobacco too.

Would civic laser shows fill the bill? I dunno. What do you think we can do? And, anyone got a Super Soaker I can borrow next year?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.