Fireworks: Great Fun and Bad Atmosphere

Around the world people are burning fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Fireworks fascinates us – but they are also dangerous. Therefore fireworks are prohibited in some cities.  

Feuerwerkskörper kurz vor der Zündung. Foto: Fotolia - Jag-cz

Fireworks just before the ignition. Foto: Fotolia – Jag-cz

Over a thousand years ago, the new year was greeted noisily in these parts, with drums, trumpets and rattles to drive away evil spirits. Actual fireworks, however, originated in China, where a monk tried to loudly frighten off weather demons in the early 12h century. Today, fireworks are set off during New Year’s Eve worldwide. But the party mood should never put the safety of people involved on the back burner.

What used to be reserved for royal courts and noble society, has become possible because of the mass production of fireworks since the beginning of the 20th century: creating light- and bang effects with rockets and firecrackers. On New Year’s Eve, even private individuals are allowed to set off fireworks without special authorization, and the delight in doing so isn’t only unbroken but increasing. This year’s sales are expected to come to 137 million euros, though goods illegally traded via the internet aren’t represented in this number. But exactly these fireworks are the risky ones because of possible uncontrolled explosions.

Illegal fireworks from Eastern Europe, the so called “Polish Crackers”, are infamous. Every year, numerous people in Germany end up in hospital emergency rooms with burns, eye injuries or permanent hearing impairments, around 8,000 people sustain inner ear injuries on New Year’s Eve, approximately a third of them with lasting damages, the German Medical Journal reports. That’s why it’s important to buy only rockets or batteries with a test seal, recognizable by a four-digit number, plus F2, plus another continuous number. “Unaudited fireworks can be life-threatening,” the German Fire Workers Union warns.

Only buy pyrotechnic articles with CE mark

In general, pyrotechnic articles of the category F2 that bear the CE mark can only be bought three days before New Year’s Eve and may only be fired on December 31st and January 1st. A federal law prohibits fireworks close to half-timbered houses since 2009; around hospitals, churches or retirement homes they’re off-limits anyway. People who violate this regulation risk a fine of up to 50,000 euros.

To prevent fires in historic parts of towns like Tübingen or Constance, various cities in Germany have imposed a firework ban. Düsseldorf, for example, also wants to prevent injury to persons as well as attacks on people with the aid of fireworks. Fireworks are generally not allowed on the North Sea island Spiekeroog because of noise protection regulations. There are a lot of prohibited areas in Bavaria, especially around the famous palaces and castles, but in general it’s allowed to fire off fireworks to ring in the new year.

An additional side effect of the turn of the year spectacle is air pollution, which increases explosively in many places. Germans shoot up to 200 million euros screaming and cracking into the sky on New Year’s Eve, the Federal Environment Agency estimates, which releases 5,000 tons of fine dust. Compared to this, diesel-fuelled vehicles look like choir boys and the emissions scandal like a trifle, as the night of New Year’s Eve delivers around 17 percent the amount of fine dust that road traffic emits into the air in an entire year.

Feuerwerke entzücken bereits seit dem 12. Jahrhundert die Menschen. Foto: Thomas Küppers

Fireworks have been enchanting people since the 12th century.  Foto: Thomas Küppers

High air pollution because of rockets and firecrackers

It’s the reason why many measuring stations record figures far above the EU limit value of 50 micrograms per cubic meter air per day on New Year’s Day. Last year, it was 1,346 micrograms in Munich, and in Leipzig it was even at 1,860 micrograms. Compared with air pollution created by road traffic, fireworks also add black powder to the mix, which consists of potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal. In addition, radioactive radium might also be included as contamination of the used strontium- and barium salts. If no refreshing wind is blowing, but instead there’s an inversion in place, the particles remain in the air for many hours.

Environmental associations demand a restriction of fireworks for health protection reasons. “At the very least, they have no business being in locations with higher air pollution, because they contribute to an extreme additional burden in many inner city areas,” emphasizes the German Environmental Aid (DUH). Depending on the local situation, partial or complete bans for fireworks should be pronounced, as is already the case in historic parts of many towns due to the risk of fire.

For safety reasons: centralized fireworks and bans elsewhere

“The shift of pyrotechnical activities out of inner cities appears to be the most intelligent solution. Either to areas on city outskirts, where the families are allowed to set off fireworks or, better yet, professional firework display at a central location,” says DUH federal manager Jürgen Resch. Public fireworks or a professional pyro show aren’t only safer but also put less strain on the environment, since more effective firework batteries are usually used.

Feuerwerk raus aus der Innenstadt - ist eine Forderung der DUH. Foto: Rico Radau

The DUH calls:  fireworks out of the city. Foto: Rico Radau

Not only historical towns and people’s lungs can profit from such a regulation, but so would pets, which are often scared by the noise. In general, the background noise mustn’t be underestimated. For people who witnessed nights of bombings in World War II or elsewhere, panic attacks aren’t uncommon when the past is rekindled during New Year’s Eve.

It can be done differently, in any case. In the Austrian capital, Vienna, for example, rockets may generally not be fired. Fireworks of the category F1 are permitted, which includes sparklers, crackers, toy torpedoes and table fireworks. Australian state New South Wales prohibited private fireworks for safety reasons over 30 years ago – to compensate, the city of Sydney organizes a world-famous firework display in the harbor.


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