Firework Fun Police

My other half has an affectionate nickname for me; he calls me the Duchess of Doom. I think this might be due to my generally sunny outlook on life. Given my doom loving credentials I thought I would examine the more negative side of fireworks in the scientific literature, which amazingly extends well beyond firework related injuries. So here they are; My Four P’s of Pyrotechnics


Fireworks release a variety of fine particles into the atmosphere, referred to as particulate matter, these particles can be breathed in by spectators and add to atmospheric pollution. Some of these particles include barium, potassium, chloride, lead and magnesium and are released along with other pollutants including carbon dioxde, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide.

One study looking at the lantern festival in Beijing showed a five fold increase in some aerial pollutants during the fireworks. These included chloride, lead, magnesium, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and various carbon compounds.


Being a vet I couldn’t write about fireworks without considering the effect they have on our furry friends. Many dogs and cats suffer from noise phobia (fear of loud noises) and bonfire night can be a very stressful time for them.

About this time each year, vets and vet nurses are inundated with enquiries from anxious owners asking for help managing their pets’ noise phobia. For dogs we can use behaviour modifying drugs like benzodiazepines (Diazepam, Alprazolam). These drugs have the advantage of making the dog forget the stressful event which means their fear isn’t escalated each time they are exposed to firework noise. Unfortunately it also means they cannot learn from the experience and therefore medication will never get to the root of the problem. Benzodiazepines can also have unwanted side effects like sedation, weakness, disinhibited aggression (removing a dogs’ fear of biting you) and cannot be used in animals with liver or kidney disease. Benzodiazepines are not used for treatment of noise phobia in cats.

There is therefore a move away from using medication in all but the most severe of cases and trying alternatives to medical therapy first. One such alternative is a fascinating area of research in dogs and cats, pheromone therapy.  A pheromone is a chemical emitted by an individual animal that is then detected by and alters the behaviour of other animals. In mammals it is thought that pheromones are detected by the wonderfully named vomeronasal organ in the nose.

A preliminary study of 30 dogs exposed to dog appeasing pheromone for a two week period in the run up to and during bonfire night showed a significant decrease in 9 out of 14 fear behaviours. These fear behaviours were assessed by their owners and compared to their dogs’ responses to firework noise in previous years. The fear behaviours that were decreased included hiding, trembling, cowering and vocalising. Dog appeasing pheromone is a synthetic copy of a pheromone secreted by female dogs shortly after they have given birth. It is secreted from the skin between the mammary glands and is believed to have a calming effect on both puppies and adult dogs. Unfortunately dog appeasing pheromone does not help all dogs, there is still more work to be done when looking at alternatives to medical therapy.


Before you go to your next firework display you might want to consider this; individual particles of firework residue may (very occasionally) be mistaken for gunshot residue.

One study used a scanning electron microscope and energy dispersive x-ray to analyse residue collected near spectators at a firework display ( They found that 8.5% of the particles analysed were indistinguishable from gunshot residue. However these particles were not found in isolation, they were found alongside other particles which were consistent with firework residue. Only a single particle found on its own could therefore be mistaken for gunshot residue. So before you get framed for a crime you didn’t commit make sure you’re either covered in a good quantity of firework residue, or none.


Understandably there is a lot of research out there about firework related injuries. These range from studies into your injury risk depending on age or socioeconomic group to statistics looking at the success of different government interventions, not to mention case studies of the injuries themselves. My favourite case study being the delightfully entitled, “Accidental Head Explosion,” found in the journal Forensic Science International. I won’t go into the gory details, but needless to say it lends weight to the advice, “never go back to a firework once it’s lit,” especially if it’s a firework you made yourself in your garage.

All that said I really do like a good firework display. So maybe what I should say is this…

Stay safe, keep your pets indoors, watch out for residue and lets all start cycling to work to offset this yearly spectacle of aerial pollutants. Which weirdly enough leads me to end another blog post with a bicycle related picture.

(Please see comments section for references)

One Response to “Firework Fun Police”
  1. ellen says:

    Article References
    GRIMA, M., BUTLER, M., HANSON, R. & MOHAMEDEN (2012) Firework displays as sources of particles similar to gunshot residue. Science & Justice. 52(1) 49-57.

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