Parades and Fireworks Dependent on Waste

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

It's not the Fourth of July without a parade and fireworks — plus lots of trash and some not-so-healthy toxins and pollutants.

Parades love trash

Rhode Island prides itself on hosting the oldest parade in the nation. The Bristol tradition draws some 100,000 spectators, who leave behind about 64 tons of trash, according to the Department of Public Works.

Progress has been made in recent years to control waste by requiring vendors to haul out their own garbage. Stapling paper yard-waste bags to trees and telephone poles along the parade route also has encouraged spectators to help with the clean up of bottles, cups, balloons and other debris.

"We flood the parade route with those bags and it's a huge help," said Jim Sylvester of Bristol's DPW.

None of the waste, however, is sorted for recyclables.

Fireworks are heavy

It's not well known, or at least not well publicized, that fireworks — from sparklers to professional displays — leave behind a fair amount of waste, while releasing noxious gases and heavy metals.

The large displays emit a fog of chemicals and toxins with various levels of health risks. Perchlorate is a widely used rocket propellent with a history of finding its way into groundwater. The toxin has been linked to thyroid irregularities, particularly in women, infants and children younger than 12. 

Five years ago, Massachusetts became the first state to set protective standards for perchlorate in drinking wanter. And in 2008, at least three perchlorate firework displays around Cape Cod were identified as possible sources of drinking water contamination. In May, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection issued environmental recommendations "to minimize potential problems" with perchlorate, such as buying no- or low-perchlorate fireworks.

Rhode Island has yet to consider issuing similar guidelines on the health risks of fireworks, even though a 2010 law officially permits the backyard use of sparklers, smoke bombs and ground-based sparking devises. These over-the-counter fireworks emit many of the same pollutants, toxins and dioxins as the big shows and can be just as harmful to people, pets and the environment.

A 2006 report published in Atmospheric Environment concluded that fireworks displays create potent air pollution. "Although firework-related recreational pollution episodes are transient in nature, they are highly concentrated, contribute significantly to total annual metal emissions, and are on average fine enough to be easily inhaled and a health risk to susceptible individuals," wrote Roberta Vecchi, author of the study.

The industry trade group American Pyrotecnics Association (APA) says really bad stuff such as lead and mercury are no longer in fireworks. Harmful byproducts, such as copper and barium, burn off when ignited, according to APA director Julie Heckman. "The fireworks we have today are definitely more eco-friendfly than we had two decades ago,"  she said.

Heckman noted a 2010 study in Lake George, N.Y., that found no perchlorate contamination in the popular vacation destination, a site for hundreds of sanctioned and unsanctioned fireworks shows each summer.

Heckman also said unexploded fireworks, or duds, although rare, pose a health concern. Pyrotechnic professionals are taught to check regularly for unexploded fireworks, a practice, she admitted, that is practically impossible over open water.

Duds and used casings, which are mostly made of cardboard and plastic, should not be recycled, according to Sarah Kite of the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation. Spent fireworks should go in the trash. Duds, however, need to be brought to the fire marshal facility in Providence or to your local fire station for proper disposal.

Kite also warned never to soak fireworks in water, as it alters the chemical composition, making them unstable. "People mistakenly believe that the water renders them useless and safe," Kite said. "Useless yes, safe no."