The holiday pyrotechnic smoke can be so thick, in fact, that historically, epidemiologists studying ambient levels of metal in the air actually throw out the data around these two dates. Those aberrations are just too big. But perhaps that’s not surprising, as Americans bought 249 million pounds of fireworks in 2019, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association.
So why is lead showing up in fireworks? A nonprofit called the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory is trying to prevent just that. The group does what its name suggests, developing and maintaining what their website calls “voluntary safety and quality standards for each classification of fireworks” and assisting “manufacturers in improving safety and quality in the design, manufacture and performance of fireworks.”
John Rogers, the group’s executive director, notes that 98 or 99 percent of fireworks in the US market are imported from China. The slice of the fireworks manufacturing market in the US is “very, very, very little,” Rogers says. “The United States used to have, years ago, a fairly significant manufacturing market. China basically put us out of business in terms of manufacturing. In terms of labor, fireworks is a very labor intensive product. It’s handmade.”
US importers partner with the AFSL, agreeing to only import from Chinese manufacturers that also belong to the group. Workers at the standards laboratory take samples from batches of fireworks and test them for chemical composition, as well as the effectiveness of the fuse (making sure they burn at least 3 seconds and no longer than 9 seconds) and whether they’re prone to tipping over and firing into crowds. In a given year, the group tests around 25,000 batches. If one fails, it’s barred from sale to AFSL member importers in the US.
All told, Rogers says, the AFSL oversees about 85 percent of the US market. The feds also do some oversight via the Consumer Product Safety Commission, looking at samples from ports of entry and testing fireworks off the shelf.
Still, tainted fireworks are slipping through the regulatory cracks. And Gordon says that being able to buy some of them for his study is only proof of that. “Obviously, when I bought these several years ago, two out of 12 with high lead levels means they weren’t doing too good in the breadth of their sampling,” says Gordon. “It’s all there for color and noise. And to me, the main point of this is for the manufacturers to straighten up and do more testing.”
That’s all well and good, but some of the less ethical manufacturers probably don’t want more testing. Roger Schneider, vice president and secretary of the International Symposium on Fireworks Society, which hosts gatherings of pyrotechnics industry experts, says that some of those manufacturers may even be deliberately adding lead. Those little explosive, crackling stars that spew out of fireworks? In the old days, lead-based compositions made that happen, but the industry switched to an alternative: bismuth oxide.
“The bismuth oxide works just fine, and it doesn’t carry with it the kind of toxicity that we associate typically with lead compounds,” says Schneider. “But sometime down the road—I don’t know, maybe there’s a shortage of bismuth oxide—what the Chinese manufacturer will do to meet the manufacturing demand, they’ll freely substitute, and they go back to employing some compounds that are not authorized.”
The authors of this new paper finding such high levels of lead in a firework, then, is alarming, but perhaps not surprising. Still, it’s particularly aggravating because the world long ago recognized the threat lead poses to human health, and acted to mitigate it. In the 1980s, the EPA forced oil companies to phase it out of gasoline, for instance. “The lead in the air has decreased by 98 percent over the ensuing 30 years, so that’s a huge victory for the EPA,” says Dr. Brian Christman, a volunteer medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association and vice chair at Vanderbilt Medicine. “But we also know that lead in paint leads to really significant brain damage and cognitive impairment and decreased IQ in children. The idea of blowing up fireworks and blowing lead all over children is really terrible.”