Toxic toll of China’s fiery skies

Guest post by Tom Saunders

A dangerous spike in the levels of particulate matter was recorded over the skies of Beijing on Sunday night, as Chinese New Year celebrations got underway with the customary city-wide fireworks display.  

Data from the US Embassy air-quality monitoring station in Beijing indicated the index for PM2.5, the finest and most dangerous type of particulate matter, was "unhealthy" from 7pm on New Year’s Eve through to 10am the following morning, when it finally returned to "moderate". The hourly readings also showed three instances of "very unhealthy", four of “hazardous” and, at 1am, a measurement produced a reading of "beyond index".

This “beyond index” measurement was based on an actual concentration of 994 micrograms per cubic metre. Interestingly, Beijing’s own PM2.5 data, which it only began to release on January 21, also showed a spike at 1am on Monday morning, with the peak measurement reaching 1,593 micrograms per cubic metre.

While it may be short lived (many Chinese cities only allow fireworks during national holidays) short-term exposure to such high concentrations of particulate matter can have drastic effects on those with existing health problems. According to a 2005 article in the journal Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine:

“Short-term exposure to elevated levels of PM 2.5 (on the order of hours to days) has been well established to cause excess emergency department visits and hospitalizations for those with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and pneumonia.”

Particulate matter isn’t the only unwanted by-product of such colourful displays, this report in Atmospheric Environment tells us:

“The burning of fireworks is a huge source of gaseous pollutants such as ozone, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen. The aerosol particles emitted by fireworks are generally composed of metals (e.g. potassium, magnesium, strontium, barium, and copper), elemental carbon and secondary compounds like nitrate and organic substances.”

While some may question the impact a few fireworks can have on the air quality of a large city, data collected by the Ministry of Environmental Protection last year shows that 56 Chinese cities experienced a spike in air pollution on Chinese New Year’s Eve.

Add to these woes the tonnes of rubbish that fireworks leave behind and the hundreds of people hospitalised with eye injuries and you begin to wonder why the government doesn’t do something to tackle the problem. This Global Times article from last year might have the answer:

“According to a city official in charge of the firework business, Beijing is estimated to have seen nearly a million cases of fireworks, or 600 million yuan worth of GDP, burst into flames during the Spring Festival.”