1. Executive Summary
Fireworks are an important part of Scottish celebrations and festivals, such as Hogmanay, Bonfire Night and Diwali. However, fireworks can potentially have negative consequences and need to be used safely and handled with care to avoid serious injury. A public consultation and omnibus survey were recently carried out by the Scottish Government (2019a; 2019b) to gather views on potential changes to fireworks legislation and regulations in Scotland. To further complement the consultation and omnibus survey, a desk-based review of the evidence has been carried out to provide an evidence-based understanding of the key issues relating to fireworks.
This report sets out the findings of a desk-based review of the evidence on the impact of fireworks in the context of international legislation and regulations. The review includes a summary of current fireworks legislation and regulations internationally, and a review of the available evidence on the impact of fireworks, relating to social and environmental factors. The key findings of the review are summarised below.
1.3. Key Findings
International regulations on the sale and use of fireworks
- EU countries largely follow the guidelines set out in two EU Directives. These split fireworks into four categories and set minimum distances, maximum noise levels and minimum age limits for the sale of each.
- The UK has additional regulations that restrict sales to certain periods, raise minimum age limits and impose curfews on fireworks use.
- Further restrictions exist in Northern Ireland, which require those who both buy and sell fireworks to have valid licences.
- Other EU countries also have tighter regulations. For example, in Belgium, the types of fireworks legal to sell to the public are stricter than EU regulations, and both Germany and the Netherlands have restrictions on when and where fireworks can be used.
- In the US legislation varies between states, with some imposing total bans and others permitting the sale and use of fireworks year-round.
- In Canada, fireworks regulations are set by individual provinces and territories. Some have total bans on fireworks and others permit their sale and use around dates such as Canada day and Halloween.
- Most states and territories in Australia completely outlaw fireworks.
- There are restrictions on when fireworks can be sold in New Zealand, but their use is permitted throughout the year.
- The limited evidence available within the scope of this review suggests that the number of fireworks related injuries is not decreasing over time.
- Research consistently finds a spike in fireworks related injuries around festivals.
- Most fireworks related injuries occur at private displays (e.g. in gardens) or in streets and other public places, not at formally organised displays.
- Both bystanders and operators are at risk of injury, with young people and males consistently found to be most at risk.
- Common fireworks related injuries affect hands and heads, with mortars and rockets responsible for the majority of serious eye and hand injuries. However, sparklers, fountains and firecrackers are also frequent sources of injury.
- Fireworks related injuries often require specialist treatment and surgical intervention, and can sometimes be fatal. There have also been cases of suicides involving fireworks.
- Fireworks pollute the air with gases and particles, which can contain metals and other elements that are potentially harmful to human health.
- Fireworks can also cause fires that further pollute the air with carbon emissions.
- Some of these particles can dissolve in water and contaminate water sources too.
- Local air pollution, the frequency of cultural traditions involving fireworks and meteorological factors can all influence the impacts of fireworks on the environment.
- The extent of these impacts in Scotland is unknown.
- Switching from micro to nano-sized powders, using sulphur-free propellants or applying nitrogen-rich compounds could help to minimise fireworks related pollution.
- Fireworks can raise background noise levels by several dozen decibels (dB), with peak sound levels of up to 137 dB.
- These high peak sound levels are more harmful to human hearing than increased background noise. Increased noise levels can cause particular distress to those with noise sensitivity, including Autistic people.
- The extent of these impacts in Scotland is unknown.
- Some of these risks could be minimised by providing remote launch platforms for fireworks operators.
- The fear response to noise from fireworks can have adverse impacts on animals, though most research is based on studies with dogs.
- If left untreated, fear of noise from fireworks can lead to phobias in dogs, but this varies between dog breeds.
- Cats, small mammals such as guinea pigs and rabbits, horses and birds are also impacted by the noise from fireworks.
- Preventive measures to mitigate these effects include behavioural measures, medication and counter-conditioning, which are mostly successful. However, few animal owners seek professional help and instead try to self-manage the problem.
- Ingesting fireworks and injuries from fireworks also present issues for animal welfare.
- Between 2002/03 and 2018/19 the most commonly reported fireworks related charges in Scotland were throwing, casting or firing a firework in a public place and underage possession of adult fireworks.
- It has been argued by Ashcroft (2018) that integration of traditions from different cultures can facilitate social cohesion.
- This suggests that if the use of fireworks is restricted to specific festival dates, then consideration should be given to allowing fireworks for celebrations from all cultures and religions (ibid.). However, there is limited wider debate on this theory in the literature.