Popular Fireworks Release Toxic Metals Into the Air

By Linda Carroll

July 02, 2020

(Reuters Health) - Commonly used fireworks release metals such as lead and titanium into the air as they explode, with potentially adverse effects on human lungs, a new study suggests.

The metals, which create the vibrant colors seen in fireworks displays, significantly increased reactive oxygen species (ROS) and inflammation in both in vitro and in vivo experiments, according to the report in the journal Particle and Fibre Toxicology.

"While people know about and are usually careful of physical injuries from fireworks, they should also be aware that there are potentially at risk of inhaling high levels of toxic metals," said study coauthor Terry Gordon, a professor of environmental medicine at the NYU School of Medicine.

Gordon isn't suggesting that Americans forgo their fireworks, just that they take precautions.

"This wouldn't stop me from going to see fireworks," Gordon said. "I love fireworks. But you probably should be up wind from any fireworks you're watching."

American consumers purchase more than 258 million pounds of fireworks each year, more than 10-fold more than what is used for large celebratory displays, Gordon and his colleagues note.

To get a sense of the level of metals Americans are exposed to in public and private fireworks displays, Gordon and his colleagues analyzed 14 years' worth of air samples collected throughout the year at dozens of sites across the U.S. by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The researchers found that levels of toxic metals were higher in samples taken near Independence Day and New Year's Eve than at any other time of the year.

They also ran several experiments, some in vitro and some in mice, to look at the impact of fireworks emissions on lung tissue.

Gordon and his colleagues gathered emissions from a dozen types of fireworks commonly sold to consumers in the U.S., including Black Cuckoo, Color Changing Wheel and Blue Storm. The fireworks were detonated one by one in a chamber in the lab and then the emissions were collected.

Next, the researchers exposed human lung cells as well as several dozen mice to the emissions samples they had gathered. The doses used in the experiments were comparable to the level of pollution that a New Yorker is exposed to in Manhattan.

The study found widely varying levels of metals in different fireworks types. "Black Cuckoo," which had some of the highest concentrations of trace elements, including high levels of lead, was also found to be the most toxic of the group, resulting in 10 times more damage to human cells than a nontoxic saline solution.

Another firework, Saturn Missiles, also produced high levels of copper. Black Cuckoo and Saturn Missiles generated the largest ROS increases, and particle size was found to be less important than firework type, the researchers note.

The increase in reactive oxygen species in the lung cells also correlated with the lung inflammation seen in mice that inhaled the fireworks emissions.

The study highlights an additional danger associated with fireworks, said Dr. Maida P. Galvez, a professor of environmental medicine and public health and pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

"This article is describing potential exposure to heavy metals and toxic fumes from fireworks and is especially timely given the current widespread and routine use of fireworks, over a period of time that is not limited to holidays," Galvez said in an email. "In addition to the traditional safety concerns of fireworks related to burns and injuries, the study highlights potential injuries to the lungs from breathing fumes from fireworks."

"While further studies are needed to explore long term effects from chronic exposures, this study suggests the need for strategies to protect human health and the environment from harmful exposures from fireworks beginning with the manufacturing process, through the use by both professionals and the public," Galvez said.

SOURCE: https://bit.ly/2ZpzBk1 Particle and Fibre Toxicology, online July 1, 2020.

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