In Search of a Safer, Greener Firework
Change Is Needed in an Industry with a Higher Incidence of Accidents than Most
Risks of Lighting Up the Sky - As the dust settles - quite literally - following the traditional New Year celebrations in the Western and Chinese-speaking worlds, fireworks have again hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. There are two major problems: safety and pollution.
As far as safety is concerned, 2013 was a bad year in the fireworks industry. There were eight known accidents in firework factories worldwide, in China (three), India (two), Italy, Canada and Vietnam, killing at least 48 people and injuring more than a hundred.
Poor Safety Record
The worst incident, in northern Vietnam's Phú Tho Province, killed 26 people and damaged an estimated 1,300 households in a 3-kilometer blast radius.
Last November, 11 female workers were killed and 17 injured in China as they assembled fuses for firecrackers. The factory was reduced to rubble.
This year has also started badly. In Australia, a 38-year-old man died from severe burns after a blaze broke out in a factory where fireworks were stored.
There's a similar gloomy environmental story facing fireworks. It has been known for a long time that fireworks are a cause of significant short-term, localized air pollution. During displays, all size ranges of atmospheric particles rise but the increase is particularly significant for fine particles of potentially toxic elements, such as Na, Mg, Al, Si, S, Cl, K, Ca, Ti, V, Cr, Mn, Fe, Co, Ni, Cu, Zn, As, Br, Rb, Sr, Ba, and Pb.
Many of these particles are small enough to be taken into the lungs and can cause breathing difficulties and aggravate lung disease. Studies have shown that firework displays at festivals like Diwali can increase air pollutants by nearly six times and the Lantern Festival in China by a similar level. Another study in Eastern Spain (mascletàs) has recorded increases of firework-generated fine-particle pollutants in excess of 100 times normal levels.
Authorities across the world are beginning to take a close look at the environmental effects of fireworks and take action - especially in fast-developing industrialized countries.
In China, over the recent Lunar New Year celebrations, "heavy air pollution" was recorded in 68 of the 161 cities monitored, while 16 experienced "severe air pollution." While not all of this is due to fireworks, many believe they are contributing to China's current chronic air pollution problems.
In Peru, fireworks were estimated to increase air pollution in the capital, Lima, by 24% over the maximum allowed limit during the Christmas holiday period.
In Manila, the Philippines, environment officials found that fireworks caused air pollution nearly 10 times above acceptable levels.
The average reading was 1,437 ug/Ncm (micrograms per normal cubic meter of air). The World Health Organization's guidance for acceptable limits of air pollution is 150 ug/Ncm.
More Environmentally Friendly
So apart from limiting or banning fireworks, what can be done to lessen air pollution and reduce hazards? Both are challenging.
Changing the composition and types of chemicals in fireworks can help reduce pollution. China introduced more environmentally friendly fireworks this year, but reported sales were disappointing, illustrating the need to consider performance and pollution.
However, researchers are beginning to find new ways to reduce the environmental influence of fireworks without affecting their performance - especially the sound they make.
One of the solutions researchers are looking at is to reduce the particle size of the chemicals in the firework. Researchers have found that fireworks made from smaller nanoparticles require a reduced amount of chemicals to achieve the same performance. The result is less pollution.
Tests involving cake bombs or repeaters - one of the most popular fireworks after sparklers and firecrackers - made from nanoparticles required just a quarter of the powder used in traditionally made fireworks. Other tests, involving firecrackers, have resulted in sulfur dioxide emissions being reduced by 61%.
There are challenges to safety, though. When the particle size of metal powders is reduced, the risk of explosions increases. The smaller particle sizes increase the surface area and the rate at which they burn. Smaller particle sizes also increase the risk of dust clouds, making them easier to ignite.
However, researchers believe the risks can be reduced with further research and the development of safer production methods.
Lessons From History
While the potential for more environmentally friendly fireworks is a work-in-progress, safety in the fireworks industry must be addressed immediately.
Thousands of tons of fireworks are shipped around the world and stored safely each year. But experience has shown that a relatively small ignition source can escalate to a large explosion capable of damaging buildings over extensive distances, resulting in many fatalities and injuries.
It's an issue the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) has looked at several times over the past two decades as part of its process safety and loss prevention work.
Culemborg (1991), Ferrensby (1998), Enschede (2000), Carmel (2002) and Lewes (2006) are some of the incidents looked at in detail by IChemE.
There were clear lessons identified from these incidents with human failings one of the biggest contributing factors. IChemE's analysis found that the main causes of accidents were:
- Operators being unaware of, or choosing to ignore, the real hazards associated with the fireworks they were handling.
- Operators failing to comply, either knowingly or unknowingly, with the constraints placed on them by regulations.
- Operators failing to observe basic precautions, either consciously or subconsciously, that would have eliminated or mitigated the effects of the incident. These include:
- ensuring that fireworks are only stored in the areas designated by the explosives license;
- ensuring that stores are adequately spaced to reflect the quantity and hazard of the contents;
- ensuring that, where multiple stores are used, the doors of one store do not directly face those of another;
- complying with the explosive limit for the stores;
- ensuring that where dismantling or modification/fusing of fireworks is allowed by the license, these activities are performed in a designated building. In the U.K., modification and dismantling of fireworks is legally regarded as manufacture and requires licensed premises and a designated production area;
- ensuring that the quantities of fireworks present in buildings designated for dismantling or modification and fusing of fireworks are kept to a minimum.
Sadly, failing to learn or share the lessons from previous accidents, and a culture of "it won't happen to me," are likely to be the cause of some of the accidents in 2013. Change is needed in an industry that has a higher incidence of accidents than most.
An effective safety culture supported by training, robust supervision and strong management would go a long way toward improving safety and standards in an industry that brings so much pleasure to millions of people each year.