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The Fourth of July brings with it connotations of hot-dogs, flag-waving, and of course spectacular exploding displays—but where do all the unused fireworks go?
Getting rid of all the excess firecrackers from Independence Day requires an especially cautious approach for firework professionals. Injuries from firework-related incidents have steeply declined despite a large increase in U.S. imports, according to an industry group. But the holiday is still the most dangerous time for fireworks.
In 1976, U.S. consumers used 29 million pounds of fireworks, and there were roughly 38.3 fireworks-related injuries per 100,000 pounds of fireworks. In 2017, that number decreased to 5 despite Americans using nearly nine times the amount of fireworks they did in 1976, according to a report by the American Pyrotechnics Association, a group that promotes the use of fireworks.
Federal regulators don’t tally the number of workers injured or killed by fireworks-related incidents each year, but high-profile accidents over the past decade have left several workers maimed or dead.
“The products are safer. You see most of the injuries now are due to misuse and abuse rather than product malfunction,” Bill Weimer, vice president of Phantom Fireworks in Youngstown, Ohio, said. “You have a smarter buying public, because of all the educational information companies like Phantom are providing.”
About 67 percent of fireworks-related injuries in 2017 occurred in the 30-day period surrounding the holiday, Elizabeth Klinefelter, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, told Bloomberg Environment.
Misfires and duds lead to a good chunk of injuries, whether it’s public use or professional display.
Several types of fireworks are considered to be hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency. Discarded fireworks and law enforcement-seized fireworks, including duds or misfires, are subject to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, according to a 2017 EPA memo.
Their disposal process can be expensive, leaving many companies to sit on combustible waste that can eventually turn into huge stockpiles of discarded fireworks. These stockpiles are typically shipped off to hazardous waste management facilities in the U.S.
“What we do is we’ll go there and we’ll segregate out which ones [fireworks] are compatible with each other by [Department of Transportation] standards and by EPA standards and by what disposal facilities and their permit says needs done,” Jim Ward, a profile manager at Hazardous Waste Experts, which handles fireworks disposal around the U.S., told Bloomberg Environment.
Usually the fireworks are incincerated, he said.
Other facilities disassemble fireworks before they incinerate them. Sometimes this can cause incendiary black powder inside the explosives to leak, which can lead to disaster. An accumulation of that black powder at a Waikele Self Storage facility near Honolulu contributed to an explosion that killed five workers in 2011.
“If you’re going to disassemble [fireworks] you have to be very, very careful with respect to your hazards analysis, and you have to be scrupulous in your housekeeping,” Ali Reza, a principal engineer who worked with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board on the Waikele investigation, told Bloomberg Environment.
Some companies choose to dispose of defective fireworks themselves.
An alternative to incineration is the “burn pit” approach, where discarded fireworks are gathered and soaked in diesel for a controlled blaze. Idaho-based Acme Pro Pyro, which handles professional fireworks displays in states across the Midwest, told Bloomberg Environment its workers soak and discard their own duds.
Reza said burn pits also present risks.
“Practically these fireworks are wrapped in some sort of waterproof paper. Sometimes you can’t get the diesel to penetrate, which is why you can end up with an incomplete burn,” Reza said. “Some jurisdictions have actually moved to exploding in a burn pit instead of burning them, because you’re preventing the paper from acting as a barrier for the burn.”
Exploding pits, though, can be just as dangerous.
“I would say incineration usually is safer,” Ward said. “EPA says if you explode them you’ll contaminate a bigger area.”
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