Around 8 p.m. on July 4 of last year, air pollution levels in Chicago began to climb. Hours later, as Chicagoans watched brightly colored fireworks explode in the sky, the city reached air pollution levels more than four times the hourly evening average. normal summer.
The times between 9 p.m. and midnight on July 4, 2021 were ranked as the most polluted times the city has seen at any time in the past year, according to analysis of air quality data from Chicago. The new analysis is part of an ongoing air quality project by MuckRock, WBEZ and the Sun Times.
While the results, from a first-of-its-kind data analysis of Microsoft air sensors installed at more than 100 locations in Chicago, aren’t surprising, experts say, they underscore how holiday traditions like fires fireworks can contribute to poor air quality over time. Researchers found similar spikes in particulate matter, or PM2.5, in Los Angeles on the 4, and noted that it produced as much smoke as a moderate forest fire. Like Los Angeles, Chicago has some of the worst air pollution of any major city in the United States and some of the highest childhood asthma rates in the country, resulting in a dangerous mix for those most vulnerable.
In response to the findings, the Chicago Department of Public Health said in a statement that while it is illegal to use fireworks in Chicago and Illinois, these laws are ineffective when not “enforced regionally and that surrounding states are more lenient in the sale and use of fireworks.
Most types of fireworks, including bottle rockets and Roman candles, are illegal in Illinois but can be purchased in neighboring Indiana.
The city’s health department also said the new data “highlights how PM2.5 is disproportionately elevated on the south and west sides and can affect the health of vulnerable populations, underscoring the importance to address environmental justice and education about the dangerous effects of using fireworks. ”
Microsoft has conducted a project to build a hyperlocal network of air quality sensors across the city. Dr. Precious Esie, a recent Ph.D. graduate from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health program, was a research intern at Microsoft last summer when she noticed the spike in air pollution on July 4 and the uneven effect on the south and west sides of the city, which have higher rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
Last year, Adam Niermann, a 43-year-old Irving Park resident and father of three, had just arrived at a park near his home as the city air began to fill with fires. artifice and pollutants. The Niermann neighborhood generally follows the same Independence Day traditions: a parade of children’s bikes, backyard barbecues, and families waiting for the sun to go down and the fireworks to begin.
Chicago’s official fireworks go off over the water near Navy Pier, often before the official holidays, with this year’s exposition taking place on Saturdays. Much of the smoke and haze that Chicagoans observe on the evening of the 4th comes from individual caches and neighborhood fireworks displays.
In a park near Niermann’s home, neighborhood families and children gather for a do-it-yourself fireworks display bought by parents in Indiana. Every year, Niermann said, the smoke in the air gets so thick late at night that park floodlights and streetlights show clouds of smoke drifting through the air.
“At 10:30 p.m. it’s just misty fog and smoke everywhere you can see,” Niermann said.
Fireworks are used in celebrations around the world, but research shows that the pollutants released when they explode cause short-term increases in air pollution.
Although the pollution is short-lived, the particles released contain toxic metals, such as barium, manganese and copper. This brief but intense pollution can be a source of discomfort for people with respiratory diseases.
In some cases, this can cause asthma attacks and lead to hospitalization.
Our previous reports as part of this project showed how the south and west sides of the city, which are predominantly black and Hispanic, suffer the most from poor air quality.
During the most intense pollution period of the holidays, around 10 p.m., five sensors in the network recorded hourly averages above 100 micrograms per cubic meter, according to our analysis. All of these sensors are on the south side of the city – in Englewood, South Chicago, Washington Park and Ashburn.
The only area of the city that saw more intense pollution was in Austin, around 9 p.m., where a sensor at the Harrison and Central bus stop just off Columbus Park hit an hourly average of 149 micrograms per cubic meter. . Those numbers are nearly double the city’s averages for the evening, which were already double the 35 micrograms per cubic meter the EPA has specified as the maximum amount for a daily average. Although this threshold is considered dangerous by the agency, the EPA does not regulate short-term pollution events like the July 4 fireworks. Instead, they look for high pollution as a daily average over several years.
Several things can help reduce the human health impact of July 4 air pollution, experts say.
At home, people should keep windows closed and air conditioning on, experts say. Wearing an N95 or KN95 mask can reduce exposure to pollution from fireworks, said Dr Brent Stephens, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology who leads a research team that focuses on the indoor and outdoor air pollution.
Attending a municipal fireworks display rather than using home fireworks reduces the amount of fireworks during the holidays and ensures greater distance between people and the source of pollution.
For policymakers, the city could start to move away from burning fireworks towards other types of displays, like drones, which don’t produce smoke, said Dr. Shahir Masri, a scientist in air pollution at the University of California at Irvine, which studied the impact of fireworks on air pollution.
“I hope cities will be more technologically savvy,” Masri said. “If we replaced even 50% of our fireworks with light shows, that would represent a 50% reduction in pollution.”
But the official city fairs are only part of the overall fireworks footprint in Chicago, known as the City of Neighborhoods.
The Niermann family usually keeps the windows closed and the air conditioning on during the holidays. One of their children had lung problems as a baby, but as a father, Adam was always more concerned about the freeway next to their house than a single day like the 4th of July. Knowing that Fourth Day celebrations also bring some of the worst air pollution hours makes him think differently.
“I will definitely pay more attention and notice what the air quality is like during the holidays,” Niermann said.
To learn more about this project, Check out our city-wide discoverys; a illustrated explanation of what particulate matter is and how it is harmful; and a call for Chicagoans to tell us more about air pollution and its effects where they live