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Are Fireworks Undisruptable?

Why new technologies will never replace a good old-fashioned explosion

For a 900-year-old technology originally intended to scare away evil spirits, fireworks have had an impressive run. Even now, when practically every industry is subject to the impetuous whims of disruption in all its forms, the firework is a largely static invention. All that has really changed is the variety of chemical reactions available, each of which allows for a wider array of colors and behaviors (like forming shapes, crackling, or shimmering), and the addition of computer programs that allow their firing to be more precisely attuned to music or tandem explosions (think Disneyland’s nightly shows).

But the basic structure of the firework is still the same: cardboard shell, one long fuse lighting two explosions — first a propellant and then, seconds later, a delayed burst once the thing gets high enough in the sky, which sets off the reactions in tiny pellets that make the explosion super pretty. Here’s a great video starring John Corley, one of the world’s foremost pyrotechnic chemists and the former executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, going over the basics:

That’s not to say that people aren’t also attempting to find alternatives. There are always concerns about safety — especially with backyard consumer products like firecrackers — as well as about smoke and chemical pollution, which means pushback from environmental scientists and governmental departments is never far away. Plus, they’re a relatively frivolous expense, when you get down to brass tacks. (Boston, for example, blows roughly $2.5 million on its Fourth of July show every year — that’s a lot of money to spend on one-time-use recreational items.) Such pushback has, of course, inspired innovation: Italian company Setti Fireworks has developed a line of silent fireworks, prompting towns like Collecchio in Parma to ban all noisier, traditional fireworks in favor of the newer quiet ones, citing the welfare of pets and other local animals, which often suffer greatly from the shock and anxiety caused by loud noises. And earlier this year, at the Consumer Electronics Show, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich proclaimed that his company’s invention of drone-powered, live-music-soundtracked light shows would soon replace fireworks altogether: “All their risks of smoke and dirt [will be] a thing of the past.” The Intel experiment is indeed pretty, as you can see in the below video — but is a completely silent, explosion-free drone show really enough to supplant centuries of intrinsically American and utterly fantastical booms?

By almost every measure, the answer to that question is hell, no.

First, consider the robust health of industry itself. In 2015, according to the APA, Americans bought more than 285 million pounds of commercial and consumer fireworks, generating $1.1 billion dollars in revenue — in other words, firework sales have doubled in the past 15 years. With the exception of 2008–9, when the recession hit, and 2013, when drought conditions significantly restricted their use in dry areas, firework consumption has risen steadily over the past two decades; even in 2008 and 2013, the numbers that dipped were those for consumer products; display-firework sales and revenue still increased.

“The fireworks industry tends to be recession-proof,” says current APA executive director Julie Heckman. “Communities will fight very hard to keep that show, even when the municipal budgets [can’t afford it]. There’s been a shift in who’s paying for those community shows; now it’s more private sponsorships [than tax dollars].”

Heckman adds that when corporate donations aren’t available, citizens will often raise funds themselves to ensure the fireworks show goes on. “It’s the one thing that brings the community together,” she explains.

The strong market is also aided by the loosening of fireworks laws in states across the U.S. over the past few years — 12 states since 2000 alone, leaving just three states with blanket bans — which has spurred not only sales but also good PR. While you’d think fireworks laws and gun laws would have a lot in common, the liberalization of the fireworks industry is actually closer to that of illicit drugs, particularly marijuana: Studies have shown that the more liberal a state’s fireworks regulations, the fewer fireworks-related injuries there are.

This correlation, Heckman says, makes perfect sense.

“When fireworks are prohibited and people decide to break the law, they do [it] very quickly. They’re very careless because they’re trying not to get caught,” she explains. “When they’re legalized, people take the time to plan. Because they know they’re allowed to use them, they think about the most appropriate place [to launch them]. ‘[Where do I want to] gather my family and friends and put together our own little backyard show?’ They take the time to read the instructions. They think very carefully.”

Last year, fireworks caused 4.2 injuries per 100,000 pounds sold in the U.S., according to a study by the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control). That’s 42 percent fewer injuries than in 2000; the number has been dropping more or less every year. That makes fireworks one of the safer uses of explosives in America.

There are, of course, environmental reasons to stop repeatedly, arguably unnecessarily putting chemicals and smoke into the atmosphere; this, if anything, is what could drive a shift in the industry away from explosive materials. In addition to drought-related dangers, it’s mostly a chemical argument, the biggest culprit being potassium perchlorate, a key chemical in flash powder, among other things. Though perchlorate is technically a safer replacement for its predecessor, the more chemically unstable potassium chlorate, people are still wary about its use: Animal trials have shown that prolonged exposure to perchlorates can cause thyroid issues, and several studies have shown that perchlorate has contaminated surface and groundwater near fireworks factories in India.

But the research on fireworks’ effect on air quality and contamination is inconclusive. According to the CDC, there is no evidence that low-level exposures to perchlorate, like those that would occur as a result of a fireworks show or in drinking water, has an adverse affect on human health. Tests conducted by major fireworks purveyors like Disneyland (which conducts its nightly pyrotechnics show year-round) and Lake George, NY (which holds one weekly during the summer months) have yielded similarly anticlimactic results. In other words, if there are long-term health hazards involved in fireworks exposure, we haven’t found them yet.

Considering the reaction to the thought of banning fracking and other, far more conclusive environmental hazards, the abolition of which would by nature upend millions of jobs, fireworks hardly cause enough measurable damage to cancel out the economic value they represent for communities that host annual shows.

For example, consider Addison, TX’s annual Kaboom Town event: “They found out it generated $2.5 million in restaurant revenue alone for the community,” says Heckman. “And San Diego’s Big Bay Boom generates over $10.6 million for the local economy. The hotels, the restaurants, all the tourism, the gift shops — if they close that event [like environmentalists have urged], it’s a huge hit.”

For any innovation to replace fireworks’ nearly universal appeal, it would, first and foremost, need to be loud — that’s half the point, isn’t it? In psychological terms, “sensation-seekers” — i.e., those who partake in often-risky behavior to feel alive — are presumably the biggest proponents of fireworks culture. In a world where technological innovation removes people further and further from the more physical elements of traditional daily life, it would make sense that the relatively safe violence of colorful explosions and their visceral effects on the human body would thrive, while silent pretty lights are just one more slick tech invention.

Until the earth becomes hot, dry and flammable enough to warrant a forever ban on recreational explosives, or until state governments see the scientific receipts on their potentially harmful side effects, the rise of “droneworks” is hardly a threat to the boom business.