So called silent firework displays, which are in fact not silent at all, unless they are replaced by laser shows, are increasingly praised as the ultimate solution when it comes to addressing animal welfare concerns. At the first glance silent fireworks seem to be a logical solution, as reduced noise pollution is addressing one of the best known problems in this context. However, as it is commonly the case, there is the bigger picture to consider, and that is where the controversy starts, at least for people who feel very strongly that fireworks are part of their cherished traditions and well deserved rights, and of course for people, who have some sort of financial interest in the business of producing, selling or using fireworks.
Most people would agree that we should not do any intentional harm to other sentient beings, be it directly or indirectly. Fireworks have a proven negative impact onto our shared environment, and are therefore potentially harming other human and non-human animals, who are unlikely to have given consent to being harmed, neither in the short nor in the long term. This simply means that by using any type of firework, intentional harm is being done to others, which is ethically not justifiable. Therefore we could actually stop at this point, but for the sake of the argument, let us look a bit more in detail into the threats and problems caused by fireworks.
Fireworks certainly pose environmental and health risks. The first obvious form of health risk comes as air pollution. Firework smoke is rich in tiny metal particles, one would normally try to avoid to ingest, which are used to create the different firework colours. Blue comes from copper, red from strontium or lithium, and bright green or white from barium compounds. There are more particles in the smoke from potassium and aluminium compounds, which are used to propel fireworks into the air, along with a mixture of sulfur-coal compounds and other toxic gases like ozone, nitric oxide and sulfur dioxide. Perchlorates are also used as firework propellants. These are a family of very reactive chlorine and oxygen compounds.
The next form of health risk comes as water pollution, as the fallout from firework displays eventually contaminates our natural water supplies – our oceans, lakes and rivers. Perchlorates have been linked to thyroid problems, causing limits to be set for drinking water. This is a major concern for lakeside resorts and attractions that have frequent firework displays. To produce fireworks cardboard and paper is being used as well, amongst other ingredients. The production of these materials consumes trees and pollutes the environment, although recycled materials are at least partly being used. Fireworks are known to regularly start fires and cause therefore direct damage to the natural and urban environment, but also directly to human health regularly requiring ambulant or inpatient treatment, which takes up valuable resources of already stretched health services, which are financed, at least here in the UK, by taxpayer’s money, regardless whether the taxpayer agrees to the waste of natural resources and to the attack on his or her own health or not.
As said before, the best known type of pollution caused by the fireworks’ blasts is noise pollution. Some of the larger conventional firework displays easily surpass 140 decibels, which is well above the 85 decibel mark, which is widely acknowledged as the threshold where hearing can be permanently damaged in humans. This is particularly bad for wildlife, as their hearing is usually more acute compared to ours. So called ‘silent’ fireworks would bring an improvement at this front, but this is the only advantage these types of fireworks do have.
The last, and rather rarely mentioned type of pollution is light pollution, which is often played down as insignificant. Some conservation organisations are claiming that fireworks in general do not have a proven impact on wildlife and in particular not on birds. It has been suggested by one of the biggest charities here in the UK that fireworks have a similar impact than thunderstorms, which seems to be at the very least a slightly naive viewpoint, considering the fact that wildlife in general and birds in particular have a well developed perception of weather developments, and have adapted well by taking precautionary measures, which is not possible at all with fireworks going off randomly and without any warning. Light pollution is a known problem not just for migrating, but also for residential birds. Given that most songbirds migrate at night, it is no surprise that light pollution is a significant contributor harming these birds. Fireworks disrupt not only the circadian rhythm of birds, but excessive artificial light at night can also disorient birds during migration or startle roosting birds. One of the many extraordinary traits birds possess is their sleep pattern. Birds do not sleep like mammals do, but they do share with mammals the cycles of Non-rapid Eye Movement sleep and Rapid Eye Movement sleep. Birds also sleep with one-half of their brain awake, similar to cetaceans. This is called unihemispheric slow-wave sleep and keeps birds alert to potential predators while still catching some rest. A sleeping bird can adjust how much of its brain is asleep by how wide it opens or closes its eyes. This clearly means that an unannounced silent light flash from a laser show or a so called ‘silent’ firework will be able to startle a bird to a degree that the bird wakes up and gets deprived of his or her sleep. This results in wasted hard earned energy and birds flying off in to the night or into an obstacle. This also means that birds are in particular at risk during breeding season, as startled parent birds may not be able to return back to their nest in time to take proper care of their brood. Egg incubation might get interrupted and hatchlings might not survive without parental warmth. Evacuated nest sites are also more prone to predation, as the nest location might be given away by panicking nestlings or startled parent birds. There is also a considerable risk that parent birds and their still independent offspring may get separated.
Sometimes it helps to understand a problem when putting yourself into the shoes of the potential victim. Imagine someone throws unexpectedly a firecracker into your bedroom. I would guess that most people would not find this a desirable experience to have, in particular not when woken up by the noise. A ‘silent’ firecracker thrown into the same room may improve the experience, but most people would still be startled by a near silent explosion in their bedroom, and would also not be very keen on the stinking hazardous smoke, a blinding flash light in front of their eyes or a singed jumper.
Silent fireworks have been primarily developed and introduced for the protection of domestic animals, such as dogs and horses, which in itself proves in the first instance the point that fireworks have indeed a negative impact. The speciesist viewpoint of some people puts a higher usually financial value on selected animal species, when deciding which animals deserve to be protected, and which not, whilst intentionally or unintentionally accepting that it is perfectly fine for other animal species to be harmed, injured or even killed, simply for the questionable pleasure of a visual spectacle.
In our own experience, collected over many years of our involvement in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, we could clearly see an increase of the number of traumatic injuries being admitted coinciding with local firework display events, which have also severely affected our own birds in outdoor rehabilitation and release aviaries. These admissions are most likely just the tip of the iceberg, as only a few lucky patients are found and brought into a rescue. There are only very limited measures available we can utilise before and during planned firework events. The most effective one is to provide sufficient artificial light to allow startled and panicking birds to orientate themselves, which however does of course create even more light pollution. Another option is to prophylactically take vulnerable birds indoors, commonly those who are known as being easily stressed, such as birds of prey, seabirds and waders. However, this obviously requires a suitable indoor setup up and additional handling, causing more otherwise avoidable stress. Clearly, these measures are not suitable at all for animals in the wild, but could theoretically be at least considered for domestic animals. Interestingly, they are rarely put in place, unless the financial value of the animals concerned is high enough to go the extra mile.
Silent fireworks are not a justifiable compromise or even a solution, as the production and the use still continues to harm the environment and its inhabitants. Silent fireworks are simply a sales pitch, modifying but not eliminating the problem. The only ethically acceptable solution is to completely abolish any type of firework display and use.