With events underway and planned across the country, the day will be capped off with spectacular fireworks – a long-standing celebratory tradition, but also a hazard.
“We haven’t had large-scale Canada Day events the last couple of years. This year is going to be even more meaningful,” said Aleem Kanji, chief advocacy officer for the Canadian National Fireworks Association.
In Canada, municipalities have different rules for displaying fireworks and the federal government has legally approved 4,000 products, said Kanji.
However, there are concerns about the potential impacts on the environment, wildlife and to our health.
“There are a lot of things that actually are not really great about fireworks,” said Kent Moore, a professor of physics at the University of Toronto, Mississauga.
The colours that look beautiful as they light up the sky are created by oxidizing minerals, like copper, barium and lithium, which are toxic to the environment, he said. These chemical minerals settle down to the earth and can leach into rivers.
Oxidizers contained in fireworks are also carcinogenic, Moore added.
Fireworks have shown to increase levels of fine particulate matter air pollution by five to six times, said Paul Villenueve, an environmental epidemiologist at Carleton University.
Even though the displays might only last about 20 minutes or so in length, the pollutants will linger in the air for five or six hours afterwards, he told Global News.
“There are substantial increases of fireworks on outdoor air pollution, and many of these increases result in air pollution concentrations going above established standards and guidelines for both Canada and the U.S.,” he said.
Children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with respiratory diseases are particularly vulnerable, Villenueve said.
Firework smoke, even though localized, can cause problems for people with compromised lung function, said Moore. And if you’re too close, “you might get watery in your eyes,” he said.
Then there is also the issue of noise pollution with the loud sounds, which animals are particularly sensitive to, both Moore and Villeneuve said.
Even though rare, fireworks come with the risk of setting a building or area on fire.
This is why the City of Kamloops in British Columbia has scrapped its fireworks this year due to concern about potential wildfires.
Across the border, in the United States, several western cities have cancelled July 4 fireworks displays because of the threat of wildfire.
“With climate change and certainly … with some of the more extreme heat events that we’ve been seeing and lack of rain in drier areas, that really raises heightened concerns for the use of fireworks,” said Villeneuve.
Moore said that even though the majority of wildfires are not triggered by fireworks, there are cases where wildfires have been attributed to them.
“If it’s really dry and you’re in a forested area, I wouldn’t recommend using fireworks because they do involve fire,” he said.
Staying safe and scaling back
The Canadian National Fireworks Association is encouraging all Canadians to follow the law and use fireworks safely and responsibly.
“Know the rules … before you use fireworks, the time of day that it’s allowed, and whether you’re allowed to use it in sensitive areas,” said Kanji of CNFA.
If you are planning to set them off at home, keep a flashlight and bucket of water and use safety goggles and gloves, he advised. Also, let your neighbours know in advance and clean up after, Kanji added.
“Make sure there’s no one in the immediate vicinity because they can misfire,” said Moore.
“You need to follow the instructions and understand that they are explosives in there and they contain gunpowder and they’re very dangerous.”
In some cities, petitions have been raised by residents calling for a ban on fireworks.
In Vancouver, personal firework displays are banned and may only be discharged by a certified technician. In 2020, the city banned the sale and use of consumer fireworks.
Given the known hazards, experts stress the need to scale back on the use of fireworks or do away with the age-old tradition.
Villeneuve suggested shortening the length of firework displays and using other more environmentally-friendly alternatives such as drone light shows.
“So, there are a number of steps that can be taken apart from a full-out ban,” he said.
Fireworks can also be made less toxic by substituting some of the chemicals used, said Moore, but “generally they increase the cost and they may not be quite as impressive,” he added.
He said Canada, like other countries, should seriously think about the impacts of the firework celebrations on the environment and weigh the pros and cons of using them.