July 4 means fireworks. Are they a beloved Independence Day tradition or a dreaded one?

A writer who loves fireworks displays and a writer who detests them make their cases.

July 4 means fireworks. Are they a beloved Independence Day tradition or a dreaded one?

A writer who loves fireworks displays and a writer who detests them make their cases.

July 2, 2021

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Why it's almost impossible to watch a fireworks show while frowning

By Jack Leonard

I wasn’t always a dyed-in-the-wool fireworks lover. As a matter of fact, I was scared to death when my father first showed me a lighted sparkler way back on the Fourth of July in 1952. To my five-year-old self, the fiery wire looked like a snake that would bite my hand if I got too close. 

My fears only intensified when my dad told me we would be attending a small fireworks display that evening at the local playground. The show, put on by a few neighbors, featured a variety of consumer items purchased in Virginia. There were cone fountains, long slender rods called Roman candles, and wheels attached to a wooden pole.

I cowered behind my dad and took only brief peeks as the fireworks thrilled the rest of the crowd with flashes of light and bangs. To me, those candles resembled the eyes of a fiery dragon peering right at me. And that wheel — wasn’t it desperately trying to get free so it could chase me across the field?

When the show was over, the audience yelled for more. But all I wanted to do was go to bed, and try to fight off the nightmares.

As the years passed, however, I came to view pyrotechnics with curious wonder instead of fear. What made the stars from a sparkler split at the end of their flight? What propelled those Roman candle stars to shoot higher than the treetops and burn red and green? And the pinwheel: What made it turn and change colors and whistle?

I also learned about the chemistry of fireworks and why they could be dangerous. I discovered why my dad wore safety glasses before lighting the fuses. As I got older, he started to let me light a few of the smaller pieces as he stood by, instructing me on what to do — and not to do. We bonded over the beauty and power of the phenomenon.

Slowly but surely, my interest in pyrotechnics grew. I observed how the artistry and suspense of a good fireworks show could enthrall a crowd. Will that firework be loud or quiet? Will it start by shooting a silvery comet followed by a gigantic blooming flower? Will it whistle or crackle? The audience has to wait and see, responding to each new effect with cheers.

Today, fireworks stil instill a sense of wonder in folks of all ages, and fill spectators with anticipation and excitement. They simply make people happy. (I defy anyone to find someone at a fireworks display frowning.) Each flare of color or explosion is a chemistry miracle enhanced by visual storytelling skills of producers and engineers. I watched a rousing fireworks finale at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore that brought an entire crowd of 50,000 to their feet in appreciation.

But you don’t need to be sitting in a stadium to understand why people love this flashy ritual. As a 74-year-old, I have spent almost 50 years entertaining my neighbors’ families with gorgeous and legal fireworks in the street. The more the merrier — just BYOS (Bring Your Own Sparklers.) And I have passed down the tradition to my son and grandchildren, all who share my love of the pyrotechnic art and know how to safely pursue it.

For me, the Fourth of July would not be festive without the fireworks. Holidays are about traditions and about family. Independence Day is no exception. But as my dad used to say, “It ain’t the Fourth without burning a little patriotic powder!” He was right. He was ever so right. Just don’t forget the safety glasses.

Jack Leonard was the first president of the Pyrotechnics Guild International (PGI) — the largest organization for fireworks enthusiasts — and is a retired teacher.

Fireworks literally cause me and tons of other spectators trauma. Please make them stop.

By Kelly Hartog

“Light blue touchpaper and stand well clear.”

That was the terminology stamped on the wrappers of fireworks when I was a kid. My dad would yell out these words as we planted little squibs and sparklers in the backyard, back in the days when it was legal to purchase fireworks in England and Australia where I grew up.

We did stand well clear. Even then, the combination of a slightly acrid smell of smoke and the pop-pop-pop of the fireworks going off slightly unnerved me. I knew the stories of the kids who had received third-degree burns, and we’d heard the dogs barking and whining in terror at the sound of the explosions.

Even back then, there was always something slightly sinister about fireworks. And that was before people started taking note of the  environmental pollution caused by fireworks or the damaging psychological effects they have on many, many people.

Then I became one of those people.  

In 2014, my then-boyfriend invited me to watch the July 4 fireworks down at the San Pedro docks in Los Angeles, where his friend owned a boat. We walked to the end of the dock with throngs of others to watch the chrysanthemums and Roman candles light up the sky in a kaleidoscope of patriotic color.

The instant the first firework exploded, I collapsed into a fetal position and could not stop shaking.

What nobody except my boyfriend knew was that 12 years earlier I had survived a suicide bombing while on assignment in Mombasa, Kenya. Thirteen people were killed, dozens maimed. I was one of the lucky ones: I walked away physically intact, though I didn’t escape the post-traumatic stress disorder that came from living through that horror.  

For a dozen years, I had avoided fireworks displays. When I finally braved them again that night at the Los Angeles pier, I was still aware that they could be a hazard to my mental health. But I thought I was taking a calculated risk that they would no longer trigger my PTSD. After all, they were only baby explosions. Not the blast of three suicide bombers driving a car into our hotel lobby and reducing it to rubble. 

But as I learned the hard way, I’m just one of millions with PTSD for whom fireworks will never again be some pretty light show. They’ll always be terrifying, for refugees from war-torn countries, for American veterans, for children who have grown up hearing gunshots in the streets. Why submit people to this trauma? 

And it’s not just humans who suffer. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, nearly 1 in 5 pets go missing July 4 after running away from the sound of fireworks. In addition, many dogs that are safely kept inside bark, cry, whine and try to hide under furniture, shaking and quivering in exactly the same way as traumatized people.

Beyond the psychological toll, the Federal Hazardous Substances Act classifies fireworks as dangerous due to the risk of fire, injury and death from their explosives. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s 2019 fireworks report, at least 12 people died from fireworks incidents that year. There were also an estimated 7,300 fireworks-related injuries between June 21 and July 21 of that year, 200 of which were the result of public fireworks displays. All easily avoidable if we just ended our obsession with death flares.

There’s also the more insidious danger of air pollution. Why, when we’re finally coming to terms with climate change, are we so willing to pour dangerous pollutants into the air? Multicolored fireworks are comprised of explosives that create carbon dioxide, nitrogen and carbon monoxide. Or, as they’re more commonly known, greenhouse gases that are destroying our environment and contributing to climate change.

 A 2015 study in the journal Atmospheric Environment noted that Independence Day fireworks introduce 42 percent more pollutants into the air than the days before and after. Plus, fireworks in America emit around 60,340 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year – the equivalent of 12,000 gas-powered cars. And much like my experience at the San Pedro docks, many fireworks are released above or around water, contaminating and polluting not just those bodies of water, but also the marine life in them.

The American Pyrotechnics Association estimated in 2013 that there are around 14,000 organized Independence Day fireworks displays, events that they promoted by saying they “can add millions of dollars to local economies” and that “sales from backyard fireworks raise significant tax revenue.”

But economics should never trump health and safety. With the advances we’ve made in technology, what’s wrong with computer-generated imaging fireworks displays if we must have them? They can still be shown with accompanying music — just without explosions.

If we care about saving our planet from harmful toxins as well as those who suffer from chronic asthma or pulmonary disease or PTSD, if we value the safety of our pets and want to stop burn units from working overtime every July, then it’s time to stand well clear and stop lighting bluetouch papers.

Kelly Hartog is an award-winning journalist, editor and book coach living in Los Angeles.

This is a recurring series from @NBCNewsThink.