It started with a few Facebook messages from friends and former students:
"Could you put a noise monitor on my house?”
But soon, Erica Walker’s email inbox was full of requests, some from people she didn’t even know. They were tired of the fireworks exploding over their cities and towns every night and wanted her to collect data about it.
Walker, a researcher at Boston University and founder of the Community Noise Lab, says we see an uptick in firework activity every year around the Fourth of July. But given what she’s hearing from people this summer — and also literally hearing outside of her window every night — something is different. And she’s worried about how it’s going to affect human health.
Firework explosions seem to have proliferated in the last month. The problem appears to be nationwide, but here in Massachusetts — where possessing and setting off fireworks is illegal — the data show just how drastically things have changed.
The Boston Police Department, for example, has reported a 5,543% increase in fireworks-related complaints during the first three weeks of June. (Yes, you read that number right.) Complaints are up in Springfield and Worcester too, officials say.
Walker says that if you find yourself particularly annoyed by this sudden onslaught of amateur fireworks every evening, you’re not alone. Unwanted noise, especially low-frequency sound, has been shown to create “mood disruptions and sleep problems,” she says. And long-term exposure is linked to hypertension, cardiovascular-related mortality and even strokes. (Sudden loud noises can also be particularly traumatic for military veterans, survivors of gun violence and pets.)
But it’s not just sound people should worry about, public health officials warn. Fireworks can be bad for our health — and the health of our environment — in other ways.
“Every year, there’s a ritual spike in air pollution on July 4th and July 5th [because] when fireworks go off we see a huge increase in particulate matter,” says Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “And this is a pollutant that we know causes health effects and is harmful to respiratory and cardiovascular systems, and long-term exposure is connected with early death.”
Granted, the Independence Day air pollution spike is short-lived, but it's substantial. A 2015 study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration examined the spike across the country and found that on average, the concentration of particulate matter in the air is about 42% greater on the evening of July 4 than the preceding and following days. (Just like the closer you are to a fireworks display, the more odor you can detect, your air pollution exposure depends on where the fireworks are exploded and how many there are.)
Despite this, scientists have not found a definitive link between between repeated exposure to firework pollution and respiratory symptoms. “However," write the authors of 2014 study about fireworks and health, "the association between long-term exposure to fine particulate air pollution has been associated with lung cancer mortality. Thus one might extrapolate this to the heavy exposure to such matter during and after fireworks displays, but formal correlative studies are lacking.”
According to the same 2014 study, fireworks also release “substantially elevated levels” of metals like lead and antimony, as well as elevated levels of toxic chemicals like benzene and toluene.
“These metals get deposited onto land or in waterways, and we know those can wreak havoc on environmental systems that are sensitive to different pollutants,” Goldman of the UCS says.
“I can’t confidently say that because of fireworks, people end up consuming these metals,” Goldman says. “But yeah, fireworks release these metals, and metals in the environment can get into food sources and then become human health problems.”