Pollution rockets on Bonfire Night

A significant share of the UK's annual dioxin emissions are released by Bonfire Night celebrations which also create a spike in levels of other pollutants as fireworks and smoke fill the sky.

According to environmental protection charity the NSCA, around 14% of the year’s emissions of dioxins can be traced back to the festival fires with particulates, carbon dioxide and sulphur compounds also seeing a surge and small amounts of highly toxic chemicals like furans, heavy metal oxides and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are also released by thousands of fireworks.

The NSCA’s Mary Stevens said it wasn’t really surprising that we see an increase in pollution from the annual event.

“We get a couple of nights of the year when everybody sets fire to everything and pollution rockets,” she told edie.

While industry has been tightly regulated and incinerators cleaned up to the point that almost no dioxins are released, the same is not the case for the solid fuels we burn in the home and garden.

“Most dioxin pollution comes from domestic combustion,” said Ms Stevens.

“Coal fires, woods fires and open air burning all contribute and obviously at this time of year there are a lot more bonfires than usual and that has an impact on air quality.”

Although the chemical cocktails that make up fireworks contain toxins, the environmental impact of their deposits on soil and water is insignificant and their effect on air quality is also small.

“The impact of the fireworks themselves is minimal,” said Ms Stevens.

“It’s very low and localised but if you let off a lot of fireworks in an enclosed area – say a stadium or a square surrounded by buildings – it can be an issue. It’s common sense that the air quality is reduced if it’s all smoky and smelly.”

The centre piece of the celebrations – the bonfire – has, however, a far greater potential for pollution.

“No combustion is clean and you don’t want to be burning old sofas and painted wood,” said Ms Stevens.

“Burning damp, treated wood is the worst thing you can do and weather conditions at this time of year can often make things worst. If it’s damp, misty and there’s no wind, that’s perfect for pollution.”

The NSCA is not making a case against celebrating Bonfire Night, she said, as the UK has few enough national festivals as it is, but there are things we can do to minimise its environmental impact.

“It’s just a question of common sense – if you set fire to something and it just smoulders and smoulders, creates a lot of smoke or releases fumes that’s going to be a problem,” she said.

“Go to a public display or, if you are having your own fire, only burn clean, dry material.”

In recent years Government has restricted the sale of fireworks and banned ‘screamers’ due to the noise pollution and legislators are pushing for further controls, with Lindsay Hoyle MP tabling an Early Day Motion calling for a total ban on fireworks except for licensed displays.

Ms Stevens said the NSCA was not in favour of such a ban, as it could create a black market for cheap, dangerous imports, but that it would support further restriciton in sale of fireworks around bonfire night, which are currently in the shops from October 15 to November 10 compared to the three-day window allowed for other traditional events.

More information on the environmental effects of fireworks can be found on the NSCA website.

Sam Bond

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