Fine dust and co.: How bad are firecrackers for people and the environment?


As of: December 29, 2022 6:26 a.m

Fine dust, frightened animals, full hospitals: every year, just in time for the turn of the year, the effects of fireworks are discussed. But how serious are the consequences of the firecrackers really?

Some people can hardly wait, for others it’s a nuisance: firecrackers on New Year’s Eve. From today until December 31st, fireworks are back on the market in Germany – for the first time in more than two years. The reason for the ban on the sale of pyrotechnics in 2020 and 2021 was the corona pandemic, in which the already full hospitals should not be put under any further strain. This year there are no restrictions – and yet the topic of firecrackers remains hotly debated.

Even if the number of corona patients in hospitals is significantly lower compared to previous years, there are independent factors that advocates of a firecracker ban regularly point to. But what’s the deal with each individual point?

Three times more Seriously injured on New Year’s Eve

“Everyone is aware that the hospitals are particularly busy on New Year’s Eve,” says Gerald Gaß, CEO of the German Hospital Association. “Every year, the mixture of alcohol, mostly male arrogance and dangerous pyrotechnics challenges doctors, nurses and paramedics.”

According to an evaluation by the DKG, the number of people injured by fireworks has fallen by around two thirds as a result of the ban on the sale of firecrackers. On January 1, 2020, 111 seriously injured people were treated as inpatients, and the following year only 32 were treated. “While in previous years the number of fireworks injuries tripled on New Year’s Day, January 1, 2021 was an average day with 32 admissions,” writes the DKG on top of that. In 2019, for example, there were a total of 10,137 seriously injured people in hospitals – an average of almost 28 per day. On New Year’s Day, however, there were 111 in one fell swoop, more than three times as many.

Burns and lost limbs

This is also confirmed by Gernot Marx, President of the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine (DIVI). For example, the people who had to be treated in the intensive care unit on New Year’s Eve or in the days following suffered from burns or the loss of limbs. “Most injuries happen outside the norm, with homemade or unauthorized firecrackers.”

The emergency rooms are also significantly fuller on New Year’s Eve. “When a lot of people celebrate, then of course there are more patients who need to be cared for,” says Marx. If a firecracker explodes too close to the ear, the high sound pressure can trigger what is known as a bang trauma. One Investigation by the “Deutsches Ärzteblatt” from 2001 According to estimates, around 8,000 people every year suffer damage to their inner ear from fireworks on New Year’s Eve.

In the past two years, at least from this point of view, things have been much more relaxed – which was urgently necessary given the many corona patients. But this year too, Marx appeals to common sense when it comes to firecrackers: “We currently have an enormous number of sick people among our staff. This means we can care for fewer patients at the moment. And of course we are happy about everyone who starts the new year healthy and who doesn’t is absolutely dependent on our medical help.”

A good 2,000 tons of fine dust are released

A direct consequence of burning fireworks on New Year’s Eve is the release of fine dust. After Information from the Federal Environment Agency In the years before 2020, around 2,050 tonnes of fine dust (PM10) were released around the turn of the year through the burning of fireworks – and within a very short period of time around one percent of the total amount of fine dust released annually in Germany. For PM2.5 the proportion is even two percent. PM10 hourly values ​​of 1000 µg/m³ on New Year’s Eve are not uncommon, especially in large cities – in comparison, the average PM10 concentration in German cities per year is around 18 µg/m³.

What is particulate matter?

Fine dust refers to small particles in the air that do not immediately sink to the ground, but rather float in the air for a certain period of time. Fine dust is divided into several size categories: PM10 (particulate matter), PM2.5 and PM1. PM10 indicates that a fine dust particle has a diameter of less than ten micrometers (0.01 millimeters). A subset of these are PM2.5 and PM1, whose diameters are less than 2.5 and one micrometer, respectively.

The following limit values ​​for PM10 apply to EU member states with regard to fine dust pollution: The daily average value may exceed 50 μg/m³ on a maximum of 35 days per year, and the annual average value may not exceed 40 μg/m³. For PM2.5, the annual average value must not exceed 20 μg/m³. PM1 is not yet routinely recorded and therefore does not have its own limit values.

In 2019, the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina analyzed, among other things, the health risks of fine dust in a statement for the then federal government. A distinction is made there between short-term and long-term fine dust pollution. “With short-term exposure, there is an increase in the daily death rate of 0.4 percent to 1.0 percent for every increase in daily PM10 exposure of 10 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m³). In addition, more people are diagnosed with asthma attacks, heart attacks, heart failure hospitalized for strokes or strokes.”

Even short-term high levels of particulate matter can be dangerous, especially for people with previous illnesses such as asthmatics. Because fine dust can get into the lungs through the air – and the smaller the particles are, the deeper they go.

Weather plays an important role

How quickly the fine dust pollution decreases again after the New Year’s Eve fireworks displays depends primarily on the weather conditions, says Achim Dittler, head of the gas-particle systems working group at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). The Federal Environment Agency also points this out. Wind and rain are favorable, for example. In a high-pressure weather situation, however, the fine dust can stay in the air for up to a few days.

From Dittler’s point of view, however, the proportion of fine dust pollution caused by fireworks is negligible over the entire year. “Locally or regionally, the burden can be very high on one or two days,” he says. “However, compared to what people in residential areas are exposed to on many more days a year, for example from wood stoves, exposure to fireworks plays a minor role.”

When it comes to fine dust, the Federal Environment Ministry also says it is focusing on measures in sectors that “contribute to reducing fine dust pollution all year round and across the region,” as a spokesman responded to the request ARD fact finder communicates. The issue of fireworks is a “very local issue” due to factors such as weather conditions and the number of fireworks burned. “The municipalities are in the best position to make a decision here. They should be able to decide for themselves whether they want to allow fireworks or not.”

In the past two years with the ban on the sale of firecrackers, fine dust emissions have fallen significantly at the turn of the year: According to the Federal Environment Agency, they corresponded to around an average day. For other air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide or ozone, the measuring stations would generally not show any significant abnormalities due to the burning of fireworks. According to estimates by the Federal Environment Agency, CO2 emissions from fireworks are also of little importance – their share of the country’s annual greenhouse gas emissions is 0.00013 percent.

Fireworks cause stress in animals

But it’s not just people who can be harmed by fireworks. The loud banging noises in particular also caused stress for the animal world, says Barbara Kohn from the Clinic for Small Pets at the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the Free University of Berlin. “Many animals are afraid of loud noises. It’s not like they get used to them. In some circumstances, the panic increases every year.” It is therefore important not to leave pets alone on New Year’s Eve and to close the windows. If necessary, a sedative can also help after consultation with a veterinarian.

None of this is possible with wild animals. New Year’s Eve is at least as stressful for them as it is for pets, says Stephanie Zein, research assistant in the Department of Domestic and Wild Animals at the Free University of Berlin. This affects birds as well as mammals. “Animals that are hibernating or hibernating are at risk of being woken up or startled.” This could stimulate their metabolism and increase energy consumption – even when there is little food available in winter.

For birds, fireworks cause them to become startled and try to escape. “There is a possibility that they simply wander around disoriented and, for example, fly into windows,” says Zein. “It may also be that they associate their actual resting places with fear and therefore avoid them.” However, it is not just the noise, the lighting effects and the environmental pollution caused by New Year’s Eve also have direct consequences for the animals.

Wild geese eat more after New Year’s Eve

The fireworks on New Year’s Eve also have long-term effects on wild animals. An international one Study led by the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Biology in Konstanz and the Netherlands Institute of Ecology According to this, wild geese ate up to ten percent longer for many days after New Year’s Eve and moved significantly less during the day. The study authors suspect that this is related to the high energy consumption, as the birds significantly shorten their night’s sleep on New Year’s Eve and also fly higher and further than usual.

“The additional time the birds flew on New Year’s Eve accounts for around five to ten percent of their normal daily energy requirements,” says Andrea Kölzsch from the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Biology, one of the study authors. “That doesn’t sound like much, but in the shortest days of winter it’s not easy for the birds to eat more. If it’s a cold, harsh winter, it can cause problems for them.”

One Study from 2015 also came to the conclusion that firecrackers on New Year’s Eve can lead to significant behavioral changes in wild birds. According to Kölzsch, the ban on the sale of firecrackers hasn’t changed much in the Corona years. “We still saw a clear reaction. I would conclude that it doesn’t matter to the birds whether 100 rockets go into the air or just 30.”

And farm animals such as cows also react primarily to the noise, says Kerstin Müller from the clinic for cloven-hoofed animals at the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the Free University of Berlin. “It has been found that noise triggers a stress response in animals, which can lead to a reduction in food intake and rumination activity.” Short-term noise exposure would primarily trigger panic reactions: “This is initially expressed in a flight reaction. This is followed by a rigid standstill in the group for around thirty minutes. Such behavior has also been reported by farmers whose cattle were exposed to nearby fireworks.”

Lothar Lenz, Lothar Lenz, ARD Berlin, December 29, 2022 6:37 a.m

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