Fireworks going off in Harlem, New York City, on June 20, 2020
Fireworks going off in Harlem, New York City, on June 20.

Even before July Fourth, fireworks were filling the sky.

While many official fireworks shows were canceled as states try to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, people in cities across the U.S. were experiencing ad-hoc pyrotechnic displays for much of June.

And complaints about fireworks skyrocketed, according to reports from New York City; Washington D.C.; Los Angeles; Oakland, Calif.; and other cities. In New York City, for example, there were 28,245 official complaints lodged about fireworks in June, compared with just 121 in June 2019. 

Social media is full of similar complaints, along with videos documenting just how intense some of the unofficial displays have been.

“Another night of extremely loud fireworks. Synchronized torture lasts until 3 or 4 a.m.,” Claudia Lesnaya posted on Twitter, along with a video showing fireworks shooting from the street to above Harlem buildings in New York City. “It needs to stop.”

More on Staying Safe

There has been a wide range of theories about what might be driving the sometimes incessant displays. For instance, theories cropped up on social media around the idea that the government or police were behind the fireworks. 

“My neighbors and I believe that this is part of a coordinated attack on Black and Brown communities by government forces; an attack meant to disorient and destabilize the #BlackLivesMatter movement,” Robert Jones Jr., who has written for publications including The New York Times, Essence, and The Paris Review, posted on Twitter last month. Jones’ many posts on the subject have been retweeted thousands of times.

But the Equality for Flatbush in New York City, which describes itself as a “people of color-led, multi-national grassroots organization that does anti-police repression, affordable housing and anti-gentrification/anti-displacement organizing,” said in a statement that setting off fireworks has “become an act of resistance and a show of solidarity with the global #BlackLivesMatter rebellion” since the killing of George Floyd.

However, the ongoing pyrotechnics also could be attributed to quarantine-induced boredom and easy access to on-sale fireworks (from nearby states in the case of New York City), according to reporting in The New York Times, which casts doubt on some of the police and government conspiracy theories. 

Whatever the reason for the increase, one thing is clear: Fireworks can be dangerous, particularly in the hands of untrained professionalsand are illegal for consumers to use in some states. They may even increase exposure to toxic pollutants like lead, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Particle and Fibre Toxicology.

Plus, when there are many weeks of explosions taking place throughout the night, the noise can be disruptive and stressful—especially for parents of young children, pet owners, and people living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The loud explosions can also be particularly unnerving to communities already on edge from recent police confrontations, racial equality protests, and the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Don't Try This at Home

When asked how consumers can safely set off fireworks on their own, most firefighters and safety professionals agree: “They shouldn’t,” says Doug Stern, who spent 23 years as a Cincinnati firefighter and is now the director of strategic campaigns and media relations for the International Association of Fire Fighters.

The IAFF says fireworks should be left to the professionals. Every year, more than 10,000 people are treated for fireworks-related injuries, and in 2019, fireworks started approximately 19,500 fires, according to the organization.

In recent years, 15 states have relaxed laws regarding the sale and possession of fireworks, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal BMC Public Health. The authors of that study looked at injury data from one of those states, West Virginia, and found that the rate of fireworks-related injuries appeared to rise after the law changed. “These findings suggest that as firework accessibility increased, more individuals were exposed to these objects and increased their risk of injury,” the authors wrote.

State bans on fireworks are not foolproof, however. People often cross state lines to buy fireworks, and liberal fireworks laws may help explain why remarkably large-seeming pyrotechnics are on display even in New York City, where you can’t legally purchase a sparkler.

For those planning to set off their own displays against the advice of the professionals, who plan to watch from close by, or who simply can’t avoid the neighborhood fireworks, Stern says several steps can help mitigate the risk. (Make sure to check your local laws before proceeding.)

Check your surroundings. Try not to set anything off near buildings or dry areas, he says, to avoid setting fire to a home, car, or forest.

Be extremely careful about anything that launches. Devices that launch into the sky are often responsible for the most severe injuries, according to Stern. Fireworks packaged in brown paper can be especially dangerous, because that’s often a sign they’re meant to be part of professional displays, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Don’t relight a dud. If a firework doesn’t go off as expected, still consider it “lit,” and douse it in water, Stern says. Douse every device after it’s done burning, the CPSC says, to avoid a potential trash fire.

Even sparklers are dangerous. In many places, sparklers are the only devices that can be legally purchased, which makes people think they’re safest—and which is why kids are often allowed to handle them. But young children should never play with fireworks, according to the CPSC. Sparklers can burn at up to 2,000° F, hot enough to melt metal and to instantly sear skin.

Protect your hearing. Anything louder than 85 decibels can affect your hearing within an hour or two, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), and a firework can hit 150 decibels at a 3-foot range, which is enough to immediately damage hearing. Get far away, and consider using earplugs.

Keep kids away. More than one-third of fireworks injuries happen to kids under 15, according to the IAFF. Keeping kids away can prevent burns and hearing loss.

Stay upwind. Making sure not to breathe in smoky, post-boom air may be especially important for kids, says Terry Gordon, Ph.D., a professor in the department of environmental medicine at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York City. In the new study, Gordon and his co-authors found that fireworks can release toxic pollutants like lead, titanium, and strontium into the air. While we need more research to see how harmful fireworks smoke could be, “developing lungs might be more susceptible” to damage, he says.

Coping and Staying Safe

When people nearby are setting off fireworks night after night, the disruption can be hard to handle, especially if you have kids or pets that are disturbed by the sound.

Is your pet disturbed by thunderstorms? Contact your vet sometime before fireworks activity starts to pick up, Stern says. There are behavioral interventions and even medications that can help particularly anxious animals, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

If the fireworks noise near you is particularly disruptive or if you find yourself woken up by it regularly, it’s worth trying earplugs and a white noise machine to dampen the sounds. Noise-canceling headphones may also be an option.

For people with PTSD, fireworks can also cause serious anxiety, especially if they’re unexpected. Veterans, for example, may have a strong reaction “to fireworks, because it reminds them of explosions that have occurred in the battlefield,” says Alan Peterson, Ph.D., professor and chief of the division of behavioral medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. And PTSD is common in many other populations, too, including among survivors of gun violence.

While many people with PTSD may try to avoid fireworks, using earplugs or headphones to try to drown them out, for those who are ready for it (talk to your therapist or doctor to check), a fireworks display could be an opportunity to recondition yourself and remove some of the traumatic associations with loud noises, says Peterson, who served in the U.S. Air Force for 21 years, deploying three times.

“To be near a fireworks show and to hear over and over again loud booms, that’s part of what helps an individual get over that,” he says. “The body initially reacts as if it it’s true danger, but if an individual will hang with it over time, the body reconditions itself.”

While there’s not much you can do to avoid random fireworks displays in your neighborhood, if these are common, Stern recommends reviewing your fire safety plan.

If you live in a freestanding house, it’s a good time to clear any brush from around your home, he says. You should have a working smoke detector and carbon monoxide alarm, and he suggests that people should also have an up-to-date home fire extinguisher that they know how to use.

Data from the Environmental Protection Agency indicates that air pollution levels of toxic metals are higher near July Fourth and New Year’s Day than at most other times of year, according to Gordon, which indicates that people with cardiovascular or pulmonary issues may want to take extra precautions by staying indoors as much as possible when there is a lot of fireworks activity nearby.