A Fireworks-Free New Year: Just a Fantasy?

By Lorraine LorenzoDecember 31, 2017

Will our New Year’s Eve ever be the same even without fireworks to literally light up the sky? Probably not, but here’s an interesting fact: It will surely make all the positive difference to our health and environment.

This is the general sentiment of government agencies, NGOs, and even private groups who clamor for a fireworks-free celebration in welcoming 2018. Ever since the signing of Executive Order No. 28 by President Rodrigo Duterte last June 20 which calls for the regulation and control of the use of firecrackers and other pyrotechnic devices, pro-environment groups and government agencies like the Department of Health (DOH) have been hopeful that perhaps this year’s celebration could be the year when people would finally recognize the dangers that fireworks pose to our both our health and the environment.

“For the longest time, the DOH has always been appealing on the correct usage of firecrackers, so we are very appreciative of the President’s executive order,” said DOH Assistant Secretary Dr. Lyndon Lee Suy.


Health impact

According to the Dr. Lee Suy, the department has recorded a decrease of accidents cause by fireworks in the last five years, but this does not stop them from targeting minimal to zero injuries for this year’s celebration.

From Dec. 21, 2016 to Jan. 5, 2017, a total of 630 fireworks-related injuries were recorded by DOH sentinel sites. These are 319 cases (34 percent) less than the five-year (2011-2015) average and 292 cases (32 percent) less compared to the same time period of last year. Of the total 630 cases, 627 were from fireworks injuries and three cases of fireworks/ firecrackers ingestion. There were no deaths reported.

“The numbers may be down, but it’s a known fact that every year there are those who will get their fingers blown off, get blind or have life-threatening injuries because of fireworks. Misuse of firecrackers is the common cause of all of these,” he said.

To address this, the DOH partners with various agencies once more such as the Department of Education, Philippine National Police, Bureau of Fire Protection, etc. to achieve minimal, if not zero, injuries throughout the season.

In fact, the department has a program called “Oplan: Iwas Paputok. Fireworks Display ang Patok! Makiisa sa Community Fireworks sa Inyong Lugar.” Via E.O. No. 28, firecrackers shall be confined to community fireworks display to minimize the risk of injuries and casualties. Conduct of community fireworks display will also be continuously promoted as a strategy to at least maintain the low injury status in the country.

The cooperation among local government units was seen to have contributed to the lowering of firecracker-related injuries. Hence, one of the focus of the ongoing campaign is promotion of the use of alternative means of merrymaking and avoidance of the use of firecrackers especially by school children, which is also one of the provisions stated under the law.

“This program is very important because people should be aware that these firecrackers have a lot of harmful effects which can get in the way of their well-being. Imagine a child losing his hand or getting blind. He would need to undergo through a process that could lead to depression. Not everyone can recover quickly,” Dr. Lee Suy explained.


Environmental impact

Although the EO does not ban the entire use of fireworks, it does limit the areas where these could be ignited, and for some environmental groups, this is already a good start.

“While E.O. No. 28 does not impose a total ban of firecrackers that we are aiming for, it prohibits the use of firecrackers outside the government-designated community fireworks areas.  This restriction, we hope, will discourage the public from purchasing and igniting firecrackers, particularly the illegal ones, and eventually result in decreased number of firecracker-related injuries.  The drop in the use of firecrackers should also lead to a better air quality, especially if the public will be persuaded to go for emission-free means of welcoming the New Year,” said Aileen Lucero, National Coordinator for EcoWaste Coalition, a non-profit organization addressing waste, chemical, climate and related development and justice issues that impact on public health and the environment.

The group is also the civil society partner of the DOH in various projects that impact both health and the environment, including Oplan Iwas Paputok.

Since 2003, the group has been conducting a complementary and parallel “Iwas Paputoxic” campaign to call attention to the hazardous emissions and wastes resulting from the use of firecrackers and fireworks.

“We believe that it is possible to usher in the New Year without inflicting harm to the health of humans, animals and the ecosystems as a whole,” Lucero added.

According to the group, the lighting of firecrackers and pyrotechnics can cause the dispersal of hazardous fine particles and chemical-laden fumes that can worsen the air quality and trigger or aggravate heart, nervous system and respiratory conditions.  Second, the discarded paper scraps, plastic wrappers and other firecracker and firework components add to the residual garbage requiring disposal.  Third, the formation of thick smog may result in poor visibility that can endanger public safety and may even compel aviation authorities to shut down airports.

On the long-term aspect, the blasting of firecrackers and fireworks contribute to a preventable source of atmospheric pollution.  Health experts have identified the following as among the pollutants of concern: carbon dioxide; carbon monoxide; sulfur compounds; particulate matter; metal oxides; and other organic compounds.

This sentiment is also echoed by Haribon Foundation, a group that promotes the sustainable use of the country’s natural resources.

“On this year’s festive season, the whole country is urged to do away with explosives and other materials that cause yearly injuries, fires and long-term damages to human health and Mother Nature. Fireworks or pyrotechnic devices produce fumes that are harmful to the environment. They generate fine particles containing pollutants which create smog. Smog caused by firecrackers is hazardous to the heart and lungs when inhaled,” said Kitty Amante, Communications and Information Officer of Haribon.

According to Amante, fireworks also unleash toxins and other harmful gases to the atmosphere, soil and water that often contain carcinogens and other dangerous substances that can seep quietly into soil and water, including lakes, rivers and bays. Debris from fireworks and firecrackers, even in designated spots, can contaminate waterways which may harm marine life that humans may later ingest as food.

Even simple sparklers, though they make little to no noise, create thick smoke that affect not only the air we breathe but also harm the respiratory tract of children and adults. Bursting firecrackers also cause noise pollution, creating more noise than the allowed decibel units that can badly affect the wild (e.g. nesting birds, etc.) and domesticated animals, including the disturbance and acoustic trauma it causes among household pets.

Haribon has been trailblazing nature conservation and biodiversity education in the country for 45 years already, conducting projects like “ridge to reef”, wherein the group planted 13 hectares and 17,000 native tree seedlings on Mt. Banahaw in Laguna province, among other notable projects.

Another group, through Dr. Robert Wimmer, Managing Director of GrAT/ ZCR Project (an association for research and development for sustainable development funded by the European Union) shared that fireworks can impact the environment in the long-run because the pollution it causes can actually contribute to poor harvests, catastrophic weather phenomena such as droughts and flooding in the future.

“Fireworks may be used during the ancient times to drive away the evil spirits but the evil spirits of today are climate change, air pollution, violence and noise – to name a few – and they are caused by our reckless behavior. Firecrackers, for instance, heavily release greenhouse gases, heavy metal fallout and toxic dust polluting the environment and contaminating the water. Homes have burnt down as a byproduct of the New Year fireworks. This is a short lived joy with hazardous effects for ourselves and the environment. The valuable resources that are burnt in a second can be used way more productively and so can the money that is spent for buying.”

The post-revelry garbage is also massive according to EcoWaste Coalition. After the merrymaking, we see and smell mixed garbage piling up everywhere and waiting to be hauled and buried somewhere.

“It is ironic that the first day of January, the Zero Waste Month as per Presidential Proclamation 760, is marked with so much garbage around us.  The tons of holiday trash, or ‘holitrash’ as we call it, provide a damning evidence of our wasteful lifestyle, which is eating up our planet’s limited resources and adding to the volume and toxicity of the garbage we create and dispose of,” said Lucero.

But how should we celebrate?

“It is worth considering to make a difference and start the New Year with what is really lacking. Peace, courage, tolerance for instance, a peaceful dialogue with friends, staring at the stars in the clear night sky instead of producing a cloud of fumes and smoke,” said Dr. Wimmer.

EcoWaste Coalition also adds more heart into their suggestion: “Instead of firecrackers and fireworks, we invite the public to go for a quieter and simpler celebration of the New Year.  If you prefer to welcome 2018 with a bang, please make use of alternative noisemakers that do not cause injuries nor emit poisonous fumes.  You can create cheerful sounds from common pots and pans and other kitchen utensils, or from improvised musical instruments made out of recycled materials.”

The group is also appealing to families, businesses and government offices with money to burn for costly fireworks to donate them instead to charitable causes.  For instance, the funds saved can be used to help the victims of tropical storms Urduja and Vinta, or the victims of the war in Marawi City, in their efforts to rebuild their homes and shattered lives.  Furthermore, the group calls on the public to consume responsibly, avoid single-use partyware, and sort discards to prevent reusable, recyclable and compostable waste materials from being disposed in dumps, landfills or incinerators.

So, is a fireworks-free New Year celebration just a fantasy, or can it become a reality? Time, specifically 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, can only tell.