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Popular Fireworks Emit High Levels of Lead and Toxins

Health + Wellness
Popular Fireworks Emit High Levels of Lead and Toxins

"Emissions from pyrotechnic displays are composed of numerous organic compounds as well as metals," a new study reports. Nodar Chernishev / EyeEm / Getty Images

Fireworks have taken a lot of heat recently. In South Dakota, fire experts have said President Trump's plan to hold a fireworks show is dangerous and public health experts have criticized the lack of plans to enforce mask wearing or social distancing. Now, a new study shows that shooting off fireworks at home may expose you and your family to dangerous levels of lead, copper and other toxins.


The study, published Wednesday in the journal Particle and Fibre Technology, analyzed 12 different retail fireworks and found that once set off, five of them released particle emissions that could damage human cells and animal lungs, as CNN reported.

The metals are used to give the fireworks their vibrant colors when they explode. However, those same metals are hazardous to humans and animals. The study said that blue fireworks can be made of copper and red fireworks can contain strontium, which gives a brilliant red light.

"While many are careful to protect themselves from injury from explosions, our results suggest that inhaling firework smoke may cause longer-term damage, a risk that has been largely ignored," said Terry Gordon, environmental medicine professor at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine, as the New York Daily News reported

The study acknowledged that people are typically exposed to these emissions a few times a year, usually around July 4th and New Year's Eve. And yet, even that exposure means people are inhaling much more harmful toxins than what people breathe in normally.

The researchers looked at 14 years of air quality samples taken at dozens of locations across the U.S. by the Environmental Protection Agency throughout the years. The researchers noticed that levels of toxic metals tended to peak in samples taken near Independence Day and New Year's Eve celebrations. The concentration of airborne toxic metals was much higher during those years than at any other time.

"Although people are only exposed to these substances for a short time each year, they are much more toxic than the pollutants we breathe every day," said Dr. Gordon in an NYU press release.

"I could hypothesize that people could have, especially susceptible people like asthmatics, increased episodes," Gordon said to CNN.

To conduct the study, the scientists detonated fireworks in a laboratory chamber. They tested roughly a dozen types of fireworks commonly sold in the U.S., including the Black Cuckoo, the Color-Changing Wheel and the Blue Storm firecracker. They then tested mice and human lung cells with the captured particles.

The Black Cuckoo, a fountain-style firework, registered the most toxic of the group, at 10 times more damaging to human cells than a nontoxic saline solution, according to the findings, as NYU said in a statement.

Gordon said that the firework emitted lead particles at 40,000 parts per million, which is exceedingly high. Normally, lead should not be emitted at all, he said, as CNN reported.

Families looking to set off fireworks this weekend should be particularly mindful of children's developing lungs and brains. Parents should make sure their kids are far away from the fireworks smoke and any potential lead exposure.

"Allow the adults to be the ones to set off the fireworks and stay upwind from it so that the smoke is blowing in the breeze," said Kristin Van Hook, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics section on pediatric pulmonology and sleep medicine.

She told CNN she has seen cases where children who have asthma breathed in fumes from fireworks and ended up in the emergency room.

Gordon also said that families should be aware what their children are exposed to and that everyone should try to stay downwind from fireworks. He added that the fireworks industry must increase its safety regulations.

"Given what we've found, I propose that ... they make sure they are importing safer fireworks and that that's what the consumers use," Gordon said to CNN.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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