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Fireworks release toxic metals that harm human cells

A new study has demonstrated that the metals used in fireworks to produce vibrant colors can damage the health of humans and animals. Lead, copper, titanium, and other toxic metals are released into the air during fireworks displays.

Researchers at NYU Grossman School of Medicine investigated the potential health impacts of some of the most popular commercially-available fireworks. They found that two common types of fireworks contained harmful levels of lead.

The team conducted lab experiments with rodents and human tissue. The results showed that lung exposure to particle emissions from five types of fireworks increased oxidation, a chemical process in the body that can damage and kill cells.

“While many are careful to protect themselves from injury from explosions, our results suggest that inhaling firework smoke may cause longer-term damage, a risk that has been largely ignored,” said study senior author Dr. Terry Gordon.

The researchers analyzed air quality samples that had been collected by the EPA at dozens of sites across the U.S. over 14 years. The analysis revealed that toxic metals were more prevalent in samples taken around the time of Independence Day and New Year’s Eve celebrations than at any other time of the year. 

“Although people are only exposed to these substances for a short time each year, they are much more toxic than the pollutants we breathe every day,” explained Dr. Gordon.

According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, more than 258 million pounds of fireworks are purchased every year in the United States. When the metals are exposed to high temperatures, a chemical reaction generates flashes of specific colors. For example, strontium produces red flashes of light, while copper produces blue flashes.

The researchers said this study is likely the first of its kind to examine the effects of firework exposure in human cells and in living animals, and to test for particles of common firework metals ejected into the atmosphere.

Black Cuckoo, a fountain-style firework, was found to be the most toxic of those studied. Compared to a nontoxic saline solution, exposure to Black Cuckoo was 10 times more damaging to human cells.

Dr. Gordon said that the current study is just the first step in the investigation, as it has only addressed the potential effects of a single exposure to the metals in fireworks. Repeated exposure is likely a larger concern, he noted. 

The study is published in the Particle and Fibre Toxicology Journal.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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