How Much Do Fireworks Impact Orange County’s Air Quality?

Every year, Orange County’s local air quality regulators issue a warning for residents that fireworks from the Fourth of July will leave pollution scattered throughout their air with negative impacts to their health. But there’s usually not much discussion about the issue.  A Voice of OC review of data from the South Coast Air Quality Management District found that Orange County’s air is some of the dirtiest in Southern California after the rockets’ red glare fades, topping Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties last year Fireworks Impact Orange County’s Air Quality.

On the Fourth of July and in the days after, air quality monitors reported major spikes of a material called particulate matter 2.5, or PM 2.5, which are the small particles in the air leftover from fireworks like smoke or soot, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.  “Basically you can think of it as trying to define a dirt clod – no two dirt clods are going to look the same,” said Shahir Masri, an associate specialist in air pollution exposure assessment and epidemiology at UC Irvine, in a Wednesday interview.

Fireworks Impact Orange County’s Air Quality

“So what scientists do instead is we think of them in terms of their size breakdown,” he continued. “Some particles reach deeper into the lung … they can enter the bloodstream.”  EPA officials say the materials can be a problem because they’re small enough to get deep into the lungs, and can lead to health problems such as aggravated asthma, coughing, an irregular heartbeat or even heart attacks.  Concentrations of PM 2.5 spiked an average of three to five times their normal volume in the air on July 4, 2022 in Southern California, with some cities spiking 15 times their usual level according to an academic study from UCI focused on Santa Ana that was released last year.

Masri, one of the authors of that study, said while Fourth of July is the worst night for pollution, the whole month of June also sees higher spikes in air pollution. “For the most part it’s a major one day air pollution event, but it absolutely has important implications that we shouldn’t overlook,” Masri said. “We saw increases on Friday and Saturday nights leading up to the Fourth of July and weekdays were a little bit quieter.” Masri’s study isn’t the only study tracking the issue Fireworks Impact Orange County’s Air Quality.

On July 3, 2023, air quality regulators scored the City of Anaheim’s air at 41 on their air quality index scale, meaning there wasn’t enough pollution in the air to have any harmful impacts. By the end of the next night, the city’s score jumped to 304, placing it in the worst tier possible that air quality district staff note reaches “emergency conditions,” potentially impacting anyone breathing the air.

Masri’s study also highlighted that neighborhoods with more Latino residents typically have more air pollution than neighborhoods with white residents after the Fourth of July, noting those neighborhoods also usually allowed personal fireworks. “Those cities that are richer and whiter had far lower PM 2.5 levels, like Newport Beach or Laguna Beach,” Masri said. “Whereas the worst cities were Santa Ana, Buena Park and Brea.”

The study’s top summary noted that the cities with the worst pollution “were often those where household-level fireworks were legal for sale and use.”  “Race/ethnicity was found to be the leading predictor of July 4th related air pollution across three counties in Southern California,” researchers wrote, noting their research “underscored,” how much city and county level firework policies can shape local pollution.”

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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