Cough, Cough: Bang, Bang

Starbucks Pacific Century Plaza

Noticeably fewer locals, noticeably more visitors

1355 hrs.

Recreational pyrotechnics are as integral a part of Chinese holidays as gratuitous gifting, constant partying, and excessive drinking. Catastrophic factory accidents and an annual toll of those killed and wounded by fireworks have driven the government to occasional fits of regulation. Each time, however, regulators back off, responding either to a general backlash or to implicit pressure from the massive cottage industry that has grown up around fireworks in China.

Officials now have another reason to rethink fireworks: air quality.

Oooh, Pretty colors…(wheeze)…

In a July 4th article in the Los Angeles Times, Marla Cone notes:

Scientists in India found that airborne barium increased by a factor of 1,000 after a huge fireworks

display there. Strontium, which creates red, and copper, which forms a blue hue, can also be toxic.

“The use of heavy metals like barium or strontium should be reduced or, if possible, avoided,” said

Karina Tarantik, a chemist at the University of Munich in Germany whose lab is working on cleaner


Much of the new research has been propelled by concern over perchlorate, which has been used since

the 1930s to provide oxygen for pyrotechnic explosions.

Perchlorate, which has contaminated many drinking water supplies from military and aerospace

operations, can impair the function of the thyroid gland by blocking the intake of iodide. Fetuses are

most at risk, because thyroid hormones regulate their growth.

Because of legal restrictions on the sale and use of fireworks – not to mention some understandable paranoia about wildfires – Los Angeles on July 4 cannot compare with any Chinese city on a national holiday. Nonetheless, the Southern California Air Quality Management District (AQMD) notes that on July 4 particulate levels in L.A. increase 100-fold and do not return to normal levels for nearly 24 hours.

One wonders what a similar measurement would render in Chinese cities, especially in the winter months when weather seems to trap particulates in a layer near the ground.

A Technology Solution

The article explains how one heavy user of fireworks, Disneyland, has turned to the Los Alamos National Laboratory for help in developing cleaner fireworks. With some experimentation, the lead materials chemists took an “entrepreneurial leave” from the lab to found DMD Systems and produce the cleaner fireworks. Voila. Cleaner fireworks for about the same cost as other US-made fireworks.

Of course, these are much more expensive than the Chinese-made types, which are well on their way to being branded “dirty” fireworks.

The entire issue points up another opportunity for China’s domestic innovation efforts. If a tiny US company can come up with fireworks that produce mostly water, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide, there is no reason that China cannot turn its efforts to finding a substitute for its gunpowder-based pyrotechnics. I would bet that a determined effort could do better than DMD Systems.

That would help preserve a robust export industry (98% of consumer fireworks and 80% of professional fireworks used in the US are made in China), but it would also head off the growing issue of fireworks and air pollution in China. Yes, I know, there is an emotional attachment to using gunpowder because, after all, that was a Chinese invention.

But it is time for China to re-invent gunpowder. A billion sets of lungs depend on it.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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