(CN) — If you ever find yourself holding your breath during a particularly thrilling Independence Day fireworks show, you might be better off: A study released Wednesday reveals common fireworks emit lead, copper and other toxins that can damage human cells and animal lungs.
“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,” says study senior author Terry Gordon, a professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine at NYU Langone Health.
Led by researchers at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, the study showed harmful levels of lead in two of 12 types of commercially available fireworks. Titanium, strontium, and copper are also commonly found in fireworks. The toxic metals are used to give fireworks their vibrant colors.
Experiments using rodents and human tissue also showed that emissions from five types of fireworks significantly increased oxidation, a chemical process in the body that can kill cells.
Analyzing years of air quality samples taken at dozens of sites by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Gordon and his team also found that levels of toxic metals were higher in samples taken near Independence Day and New Year’s Eve celebrations than at any other time of the year.
“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,” Gordon said in a statement accompanying the study.
Americans purchase more than 258 million pounds of fireworks every year to celebrate holidays, concerts and sporting events, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. To create bright colors, metals are exposed to high temperatures, causing a chemical reaction that gives off a flash of colored light.
The study, published in the journal Particle and Fibre Toxicology, claims to be the first to examine the effects of firework exposure in human cells and to test for particles of common firework metals thrown into the atmosphere.
Researchers collected emissions from a dozen types of fireworks detonated in the lab. They then exposed human lung cells and dozens of mice to the captured particles, notably in low doses thought to match a New Yorker’s daily exposure to pollutants in Manhattan air.
Gordon cautions that the current investigation is a first step, only addressing the potential effects of one-time exposure. Repeated exposure is likely a larger concern, he says. Funding for the study was provided by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences