What does Pittsburgh’s love of fireworks mean for air quality?

Fireworks are a source of a pollutant called fine particulate matter, which can have short- and long-term health effects.

Alan Charness / Flickr
Sarah Anne Hughes

Pittsburgh will ring in the new year with not one but two fireworks displays.

That gusto for colorful explosions isn’t surprising.

As The Incline previously documented, Pittsburghers requested fireworks permits over the past year for events including a wedding, several post-baseball game celebrations and a Tuesday morning corporate split. You can check out the locations of those displays on this map, and read more here about the 42 permits for fireworks (red on map) and pyrotechnic displays (yellow) sought between Dec. 1, 2015 and Nov. 28, 2016.

While fireworks have the immediate effect of giving people something pretty to look at (and scaring dogs and babies), they’re also a source of a pollutant called fine particulate matter. Allegheny County does not meet federal standards for that type of pollutant, as PublicSource recently reported, or for sulfur dioxide and ozone.

“Exposure to such particles can affect both your lungs and your heart” in the short term and long run, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Health problems linked to fine particulate matter include nonfatal heart attacks, asthma issues and other breathing problems, as well as premature death in people with heart and lung diseases.

That can be of particular concern on days of countrywide enthusiasm for fireworks, such as July 4.

A 2015 study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Dian Seidel and intern Abigail Birnbaum measured the spike in fine particulate matter on the Fourth of July and found that average concentrations of that type of air pollution are 42 percent greater than on the third and fifth of that month.

“There absolutely is a short-term effect,” Jim Kelly, acting deputy director of the Allegheny County Health Department’s Bureau of Environmental Health, told The Incline.

The bureau monitors air quality factors at several sites in the county, including in Lawrenceville and near Downtown, and submits that information to the EPA. The Fourth of July is what the EPA calls an “exceptional event,” meaning data from that day can be excluded when the agency is determining whether a state or municipality has met air quality standards.

Smaller displays like fireworks after a Pirates game “typically aren’t big enough or intense enough for the monitor to show an actual impact,” Kelly said. But displays like the ones on the Fourth are longer in duration and higher in altitude.

“Those are the fireworks that have an impact,” he said.

Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, said she’s “not aware of particulate matter really being a concern in the fireworks industry.”

“The fireworks that we enjoy in the United States specifically prohibit high toxicity chemicals,” she said, later adding, “We’re always looking for ways to improve the chemical formulation.”

Carnegie Mellon assistant research professor Albert Presto echoed Kelly, saying there’s “probably not a big impact” from smaller displays.

Presto is part of the university’s Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies, a cross-departmental effort “to be world leaders in science, engineering and policy covering the full role of fine particulate matter in the atmosphere.” That includes quantifying “what people are breathing on a day-to-day basis.”

In Allegheny County, that answer is not-very-great-but-getting-better air.

Earlier this year, the American Lung Association ranked Allegheny County No. 12 on a list of counties with year-round particle pollution. That earned the area an F from the group. But the report also noted that Pittsburgh had its “fewest ever number of unhealthy days on average” in regards to particle pollution compared to previous reports.

And this year, Pittsburgh only exceeded the federal ozone limit five times, Allegheny County Health Department Air Quality Program Manager Jayme Graham told WESA. (Particulates data wasn’t available.)

“You can break emission sources that have big impacts on people into two really broad categories,” Presto said: ubiquitous sources like vehicles and power plants, whose emissions “can impact big populations downwind”; and “smaller or less frequent” sources that emit things that are extremely or acutely toxic. He noted that most new cars “are really darn clean” and that power plants are heavily regulated.

That’s one reason Presto and his team research “what hasn’t been as studied.” Recently, one of Presto’s students did sampling at tailgating before a Steelers game to look at the relationship between cooking sources and particulate matter. (That data hasn’t been made public yet.)

Despite progress in the region, health problems caused by particulate matter “can be a concern,” Kelly said. “If people have asthma that can be impacted by particulate matter, they may need to take into consideration how they’re going to view fireworks.”

The county asks residents who have an air quality issue to call the hotline at 412-687-ACHD or register a complaint online.