London celebrations

Baranyai: Fireworks should go out with or without a crash

At a time when “we’re all in this together” rings awfully hollow, it can be restorative to consider what unites us, beyond the overwhelming angst of a global pandemic.

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At a time when “we’re all in this together” rings awfully hollow, it can be restorative to consider what unites us, beyond the overwhelming angst of a global pandemic. For all our vibrant differences, there are common threads that weave together shared experiences.

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The cultural significance of food, for example, is universal. Holiday meals are endlessly varied, but we all come together to celebrate. Likewise, every culture has important rites of passage, whether we mark the transition to adulthood with a quinceañera or pass a driver’s license.

And then there are the fireworks. The colorful explosions are a popular attraction on all continents that are not dedicated to scientific research. Their charm has spanned the ages, becoming an ubiquitous staple, from Diwali celebrations to Disney theme parks.

The first fireworks and their twin invention, gunpowder, date back to ninth-century China. Early explosives packed a mixture of charcoal, sulfur and potassium nitrate in hollow bamboo, which emits a loud crackle when heated.

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Nowhere are fireworks more widely used than in their country of birth. They are lit to bring blessings to newlyweds, commemorate the dead, and ring in the Lunar New Year. Unfortunately, these traditions have a negative impact on the environment.

Beijing authorities have been phasing out fireworks within the city limits for about a decade in the fight against air pollution. A total ban, effective Jan. 1, was announced last month by the city’s fireworks and firecracker safety management coordination group.

As Lunar New Year’s Eve approaches Monday, just five days before the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, officials in Beijing have cracked down on fireworks sales. Additional air pollution would be particularly unwelcome as the world tunes in to watch the Winter Games (another cultural touchstone that unites us – the celebration of sporting excellence).

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All eyes are on the host city as it is plagued by dangerous smog. Last Sunday, particulate levels reached such unhealthy levels that outdoor exercise was discouraged. Conditions not quite favorable for an international sports competition.

Promising a “Green Olympics,” Beijing has made efforts to control emissions and clean the air. Many coal-dependent factories were shut down for the Games. Authorities are even trying to control the weather, using cloud-seeding rockets to boost rainfall and help wash particles from the sky.

Other cities face similar battles. In November, in the days after Diwali, air quality in New Delhi reached dangerous levels of particulate matter, despite an attempt to ban fireworks across the city.

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Fireworks release smoke and particles into the air. The colors are achieved by heating a rainbow of metallic compounds, from lithium carbonate (red) to sodium nitrate (yellow), barium nitrate (green), copper carbonate (blue) and aluminum (white). These metallic salts can have negative impacts on human and animal health. To produce the oxygen needed for combustion, some fireworks also contain perchlorates, which are water soluble and can contaminate rivers, lakes and drinking water.

Fireworks also cause significant noise pollution and can be distressing for neuro-divergent people, as well as some veterans, refugees, and people with post-traumatic stress disorder. They can also cause significant stress to pets and wildlife.

Traditions are hard to break, but people are increasingly wondering if these festive manifestations are worth the harm they cause. The Animal Protection Party of Canada has called for a ban on fireworks. And an e-petition calling for the exploration of permanent legislative changes to the use of fireworks in Canada has garnered approximately 14,000 signatures.

There is more to shared experiences than a light show, no matter how beautiful. We all share the air.

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