Fireworks are fun, exciting and often free to watch, but there may be a hidden cost: The flashing displays can harm the environment and pose risks to human health.

Now, scientists are working on a new generation of kinder, gentler pyrotechnics. While still explosive and dramatic, these fireworks produce less smoke and use fewer toxic metals that end up in soil and groundwater.

"Everyone at or downwind of a pyrotechnic display is getting subjected to levels of these metals that aren't natural levels," said David E. Chavez, a chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. "Whether that really is going to cause health effects is up for debate."

While particle-filled smoke may be the most obvious concern, it's not the only issue -- or even the worst one. Some of the metals that make fireworks colorful may also be poisonous when heated. For example, antimony, which is sometimes used to produce the color white, can harm the lungs, heart, stomach and other organs.

Barium, which provides a green hue, "does something really nasty to your insides and gastrointestinal tract," said Michael Hiskey, an explosive chemist at DMD Systems, a pyrotechnic research and development company. Barium can also be toxic to the heart.
Discovery NEWS