From China with Boom: Happy Birthday America!

BY NICOLE KARLIS | JULY 02, 2009 7:20 AM

This Saturday evening at dusk, crowds of people will gather around the Pentacrest to watch fireworks blasted into the air, set to patriotic tunes.

But this year’s stars and sparkles began their journey at least two years ago. In China.

J & M Displays, Inc., the Midwest-based company responsible for firework displays in Iowa City, continues to send representatives to China — where fireworks were first made around 2,000 years ago.

“We have our products made to our specifications from China,” said Monte Whitlock, a certified display operator for J & M Displays. “We have an idea for a device [firework], they make some for us, and test it.”

This process can take up to two years because of checks by U.S. federal organizations such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Whitlock said. After the series of rigorous testing, the fireworks then go into production and are imported to the United States.

Despite the meticulous testing, however, chemicals in fireworks have reportedly raised environmental concerns.

In 2008, perchlorate, a chemical used in fireworks as a rocket propellant, was found in water supplies after nearby firework displays in Massachusetts. Perchlorate can harm the thyroid gland, which controls metabolism.

The firework displays near the contaminated locations had not been confirmed as the official cause, but the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection made recommendations for firework contractors to minimize potential hazards.

But UI scientists say the sizzling pyrotechnics are not a major problem. Doug Schnoebelen, a UI research scientist in hydroscience and engineering, said although perchlorate is considered a drinking water advisory, hometown glitz and glimmers are not enough to be harmful.

“A local fireworks display would not pose an issue,” he said. “All [the perchlorate] is consumed when fireworks go off.”

Schnoebelen said serious issues can arise when fireworks companies go out of business and bury their products in the soil. That allows the chemical to get into groundwater, where it can travel long distances.

There are more urgent concerns. In 2007, hospital emergency rooms across the country treated 9,800 people for fireworks-related injuries. No such numbers for Iowa City were available.

Iowa City Fire Marshal John Grier said he couldn’t recall any recent, specific incidents involving fireworks. However, he encouraged locals to see the public firework display from afar rather than lighting up their own.

All fireworks are illegal except sparklers, toy snakes, and littlecap guns.

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