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Fourth of July fireworks could harm Austin's air quality

A red firework explodes against a black sky, surrounded by strips of rainbow-colored lights.
Renee Dominguez
KUT News
Firework smoke can be especially harmful for those with asthma or other respiratory conditions.

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The Fourth of July is here again, and that means fireworks. It’s an annual tradition that comes with a lot of baggage. Each year the colorful combustibles injure people, scare animals and create fire risk.

To that list we can add one more downside: Fireworks are bad for air quality.

That’s because setting them off puts particulate matter into the air, just like running a gas-powered car or burning coal at a power plant would.

That includes fine particulate matter — very small dust particles that are especially damaging to your lungs.

“When you add it all up together, [fireworks are] a pretty significant source of air pollution,” says Anton Cox, air quality program manager at the Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG).

How bad is it? Check the wind.

The impact fireworks have on local air quality depends on weather conditions, Cox says. If there’s a breeze, the smoke typically dissipates and is not picked up by regional air monitors.

If there is no wind, that smoke can settle in and create unhealthy conditions.

Cox says it last happened in Austin on New Year’s Day of 2023.

“We actually saw that pollution just stay in our area. That whole next day was pretty foggy, pretty hazy,” he says. “And it wasn't actually fog. It was particulate matter from fireworks, mainly.”

The particulate matter pushed the regional air quality index into a category deemed “unhealthy for sensitive groups" by federal and state regulators.

“For particle pollution, the sensitive groups include people with heart and lung disease, older adults, children, people with diabetes, and people of lower [socio-economic status],” according to the EPA.

Due to new, more stringent EPA air quality standards, Austin will likely see more days in which fine particulate matter is classified as unhealthy.

What's in all that smoke?

Researchers are also starting to learn more about what the particulate matter created by fireworks is composed of.

A recent study from Brigham Young University found that the presence of dangerous metals in airborne particulate matter peaks in January and July, coinciding with the Fourth of July and New Year's Eve.

Fireworks release barium, copper, arsenic, cadmium, lead and thallium, according to a BYU press release — all dangerous substances.

According to researchers, the dangers of putting those toxins into the air may not end when they fall to the ground.

“Metals are really good at moving around from the atmosphere into the soil, into the water and into our food,” study author Greg Carling said in the release. “And they’re persistent, meaning that they don’t really go away — they just keep cycling through the system.”

In Austin and many other cities, fireworks displays are not allowed without a permit, though that doesn’t always seem to stop people.

Anton Cox with CAPCOG advises steering clear of the smoke. It can be especially harmful for those with asthma or other respiratory conditions.

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Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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