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Soon, Red Fireworks Might Not Contain Carcinogens Anymore

Scientists discover alternative to cancer-causing chemicals that give red fireworks their color.

(Marina Lystseva/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Fireworks manufacturers won’t have to rely on chemical compounds that contain carcinogens to give their explosives a brilliant red color anymore.

Pyrotechnic manufacturers have traditionally relied on chlorine-based compounds to get their fireworks and flares to produce bright red bursts. Once they are set on fire, however, chlorides can have a nasty side-effect of producing a whole host of chemical compounds that fall back to earth, some of which can cause cancer, Sarah Everts writes for the American Chemical Society.

Red doesn’t just give firework shows an extra pop: the highly saturated red color produced by setting chlorine compounds like strontium monochloride ablaze is essential for signal flares used by both civilians and the military. Scientists have toyed with alternatives for years, but they are often expensive and hard to make.

“Training areas get fallout [from flares] over and over again,” David E. Chavez, a chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, tells Everts. “It can be an issue for environmental clean-up.”

But now, scientists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory have formulated a new red pyrotechnic that doesn’t rely on chlorides for it’s color. According to a study published in the journal Angewandte Chemie, the researchers replaced strontium monochloride with another compound, strontium monohydroxide, which had previously been used in flares and fireworks at low levels. The scientists realized that in the right quantity, it could produce an even better burst of red light than the traditional chloride, minus the pesky carcinogens, Everts writes.

Red isn't the only color that can cause problems wither. Last year, researchers at the University of Munich figured out a way to make blue fireworks without relying on ammonium perchlorate or potassium perchlorate, which can easily get into the water supply and disrupt thyroid function.

But making a less-toxic firework is one thing; getting manufacturers to change how they make their explosives is another. “It’s very challenging to go from something that works on the bench to something that works on a large-scale,” Chavez tells Everts.

Luckily, some of the chemicals the researchers used are already widely used by fireworks manufacturers, which could make it easier to adopt the less-toxic explosives. Soon, environmentally-friendly fireworks could make summer celebrations a little better for the planet.

h/t Scientific American

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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