Ozone flares with fireworks festivities

Besides decorating the night skies this Fourth of July, fireworks across the United States will pollute them with ozone, according to a new study.

Bursts of ozone may accompany July 4 fireworks explosions. Photodisc

Ozone, or O3, plays a protective role in the upper atmosphere, where it’s produced naturally by ultraviolet (UV) radiation striking other oxygen molecules (O2 ). Near the ground, ozone is a pollutant that irritates eyes and makes breathing difficult. Its formation there generally requires sunlight and nitrogen oxides.

At Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, Arun K. Attri and his colleagues wondered whether the UV radiation emitted by the burning metal salts in fireworks and sparklers might trigger ozone-generating reactions in the lower atmosphere. To find out, the researchers measured atmospheric gases before, during, and after the annual Diwali festival of lights.

They found that near-ground ozone increased between 8:40 p.m. and 2:30 a.m. on Diwali Night. Further experiments confirmed that sparklers produce ozone in the absence of nitrogen oxides or sunlight, the team reports in the June 28 Nature.

The chemical mechanism is probably similar to the one by which UV radiation makes ozone in the upper atmosphere, says Attri.

He and his colleagues are now doing more experiments to better understand this reaction and determine just how much ozone fireworks and sparklers produce.

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