The summer months are marked by thunderous booms and vibrant displays of shimmering colors in the sky. It’s fireworks season, and the excitement that many experience is accompanied by a hidden danger that few know about. Fireworks contain an abundance of chemicals including perchlorate, heavy metals, dioxins, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, along with smoke and its particulates. Perchlorate, which helps the fireworks burn longer, is incredibly harmful to both the environment and human and animal health. Repeated exposure to perchlorate inhibits the healthy functioning of the thyroid, which produces hormones that regulate metabolism, heart function, muscle control, and brain development, among other functions. In addition, exposure to heavy metals can result in skin, gastrointestinal, and respiratory problems, Alzheimer’s disease, and even cancer. It’s no wonder that scientists have been looking for safer substitutions for all those harsh chemicals. And they found it! The answer is nitrogen!
Nitrogen is an amazing substitute for perchlorate in fireworks because it safely and cleanly supplies the energy that drives the burning reaction, simply by harnessing the energy released when its chemical bonds are broken. Nitrogen also doesn’t produce smoke like perchlorate does, so less heavy metals are needed as coloring agents. Nitrogen-fueled fireworks also contain nitrocellulose, which burns with very little smoke and no dangerous by-products. It simply emits some basic carbon dioxide, water, and nitrogen. As an added bonus, nitrogen-based pyrotechnics offer better color quality and intensity.
Unfortunately, these “green,” or eco-friendly, fireworks are not widely used due to their higher cost. They are more often used for indoor pyrotechnic shows to provide a safer environment for the confined audience. However, simply because a fireworks show is outdoors does not means it is safe. The EPA conducted a study in 2007 that measured the perchlorate levels in an Oklahoma lake where a fireworks show is held once a year on Fourth of July. Only 14 hours after the show, perchlorate levels in the lake were 1000 times higher than normal. It was also determined that, on average, it takes between 20 and 80 days for the elevated concentration to return to its natural level. Yet, because there are no federal regulations regarding perchlorate, most fireworks shows use the standard (and more deleterious) kind of pyrotechnic.
During the 2014 New Year’s holiday, Dubai set a Guinness World Record for hosting the world’s largest fireworks display. One of their resorts set off 400,000 fireworks along the beachfront in six minutes. Walt Disney World consumes the largest number of fireworks in the United States per year. While skeptics may say that the perchlorates in fireworks can’t do much harm when fireworks are used infrequently, there is no disputing that when very crowded and populated places routinely employ the use of standard, perchlorate-ridden fireworks, the harmful substance inevitably accumulates, much to the detriment of those visiting.
Nitrogen seems to be popping up around modern society more and more frequently, primarily as a problem-solver. This magical element not only improves our Independence Day celebrations, but it also is being used more frequently to replace compressed air in vehicle tires, improving safety, handling, fuel economy, and tire lifespan. Many problems of today no longer need to wait for the solutions of tomorrow thanks to the priceless properties of good old nitrogen.