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It's time for silent fireworks

It's time for silent fireworks
© Getty Images

The Fourth of July is coming, and the fireworks have already begun. After months of being cooped up due to the pandemic, and in the context of ongoing struggles for racial justice, more residents than usual are starting this year’s festivities early, resulting in both exuberant fun and noise complaints by neighbors. In the first half of June in N.Y.C., for example, the city received 80 times the number of fireworks complaints this year than last. Even though many municipalities across the nation have canceled big city-wide celebrations due to the need for social-distancing, we can still expect smaller celebrations where families and friends set off fireworks in their streets or backyards to mark the occasion. But for some, fireworks are no fun, and they are more than a nuisance disturbing their sleep; they are a potential source of trauma. There is a simple solution. 

“Silent” fireworks can deliver the same cascading colors but without the daunting decibels and startling explosions that usually erupt in the night sky. While these silent fireworks are stunning, they lack the big explosive power that drives mega-displays high into the air for viewing by thousands. They are ideal for smaller events. The trade-off in scale is a welcome one for the many for whom these celebrations often bring with them trauma, fear, and even lingering effects of hearing loss. 

It shouldn’t be hard to understand how fireworks’ loud, unpredictable bangs and whizzing explosions that cause such delight could also have negative effects on so many. Veterans with PTSD, children on the autism spectrum, survivors of gun violence, pets, and even wildlife and farm animals routinely suffer on July 4th. Yet there is an easy way to change that by lowering the impact of the loud, sudden, unpredictable, percussive noises that come with fireworks.

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Silent” fireworks aren’t a new invention. In fact, they have been around for a long time as part of regular fireworks displays, including the “comet display” that shoots into the air with a long sparking tail, or the “flying fish” whose scattering sparkles swim out from a silent boom like little tadpoles. These fireworks actually display the most stunning colors, more so than big explosions. The most explosive fireworks, the ones with the biggest booms, have little color because the force can shatter the pellets that carry the little “stars” that emit signature colors of green, red, and blue. Despite the name, these more colorful fireworks aren’t entirely silent, but they are significantly quieter, registering at far below the typical 150-170 decibels of the loud fireworks, which can cause hearing damage. 

For some veterans, or for victims of gun violence, the sudden booms and pops of loud exploding fireworks can trigger a PTSD episode, recalling the “duck and cover” response to unpredictable danger and raising anxiety during the holiday. Some veterans even put signs outside their houses to alert neighbors to their predicament, asking for consideration as they know the explosions can bring unwelcome memories to the fore.

Children can also suffer. Some children on the autism spectrum can be overwhelmed by the huge noises and the unpredictable sounds of fireworks displays, and their parents are often advised by psychologists to buy noise-canceling headphones for such events. Their families have to carefully strategize how to navigate the celebrations if they go, or choose to stay home altogether, depriving other family members of a chance to participate in collective festivities. 

And it is not only people who are harmed. Your dog’s hearing is many times more acute than yours. Dogs can hear up to 60,000hz while humans only hear 20,000hz. Fireworks, which arrive without warning, can trigger a startle response in dogs, generating acute anxiety and fear in a situation they can’t understand. Just like in people, the startle response causes racing hearts, a surge of adrenalin, and a need to flee. Shelters routinely report an influx of lost dogs after the 4th as terrified animals run for their lives. According to the ASPCA , more dogs get lost on the Fourth of July than any other day of the year. 

Wildlife too can be terrified, such as the deer and coyotes that race into the road to escape the sounds, resulting in more dangerous car collisions. Even birds are affected. In the largest event yet reported on the effects of fireworks explosions on wildlife, the town of Beebe, Arkansas, saw 5,000 red-winged blackbirds fall dead from the sky after a fireworks celebration, possibly because the sounds disoriented them, causing them to fly into houses and trees.

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With all of these human and animal populations negatively affected, it’s far past time to change our fireworks. Towns in Europe, Canada, and the U.K., are leading the way, with some, like Collecchio, Italy, even banning loud fireworks, and others choosing low-noise alternatives. In the U.S., Costa Mesa, California, has already switched the city-wide display to low-noise pyrotechnics. Although it used to be harder to find low-noise fireworks, now they are readily available through companies like Phantom Fireworks with commercial distribution across the country. 

It's time to rethink our fireworks celebrations. Sure, we may have to forego some of the biggest booms, and some may share Julie Hickman of the American Pyrotechnics Association’s assessment that watching silent fireworks “wouldn’t be the real experience.” But the past few months have made clear that much in our nation must change going forward. How we celebrate can also break new ground and create a new “real thing,” spectacular Technicolor pyrotechnics lighting up the night sky with greater consideration for veterans, gun violence survivors, children, pets, and wildlife. Now wouldn’t that be something to celebrate?

 Jane Desmond is a professor in Anthropology and Gender and Women's Studies, and Co-founder and current Director of the International Forum for U.S. Studies, a center for the Transnational Study of the United States.  She also holds appointments in the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory, the Center for Global Studies, and in the College of Veterinary Medicine all at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.