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Monitoring the air around July Fourth fireworks for signs of dangerous lead

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Fireworks light up the sky in downtown Los Angeles, where spectators stand in front of City Hall for viewing.
(Los Angeles Times)

UC San Diego is going to monitor the county’s atmosphere during the Fourth of July to determine whether the explosions from local fireworks shows release lead, a potentially harmful metal.

Firework shows are supposed to be free of lead, which can cause a variety of health issues, including respiratory and cognitive problems.

Atmospheric chemist Kim Prather will do a spot check for the metal, and look for strontium, copper and other chemicals associated with fireworks.

“We can see these things in real time, so it will tell us what people are breathing when the fireworks shows are going on,” said Prather, whose monitoring will mostly involve fireworks sites at and near the coast.

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She plans to compare the results to a similar study she conducted in Riverside County in the mid-1990s.

There are about 20 sites across the county scheduled to hold major fireworks shows Wednesday night. Many are located along the coast, where the material from the spent pyrotechnics gets blown ashore and moved around.

A mass spectrometer at UC San Diego’s Urey Hall will be used to spot and identify the material. Prather also will look for signals from smaller fireworks — the kind people set off in their neighborhoods.

“Fireworks produce a very distinct signal.” Prather says. “We will be able to see the bursts they produce and figure out what they’re composed of. We’re going to be able to determine what people have been breathing. That’s important because we don’t understand the air quality of San Diego as well as we should.”

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Robbins writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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