4. Impacts of fireworks
This section reviews the evidence on the impacts of fireworks. It begins by summarising the literature on fireworks related injuries, before turning to environmental impacts and their health effects, and noise and its health effects. Finally, it explores issues related to animal welfare, underage sales and culture.
It is important to note that while this review covers a range of evidence on fireworks, it should not be regarded as a comprehensive or definitive account of the evidence. Rather, it constitutes a collation of relevant material which could be identified and accessed within a relatively short period of time.
As well as the specific issues highlighted in the quality assessment of the evidence available (see Appendix A), a number of other issues are worth noting from the evidence reviewed. Although the studies were generally robust, there was a distinct lack of evidence based in Scotland and the wider UK, and it is not always clear how findings will apply to the Scottish context. For example, environmental impacts are found to be influenced by a range of factors that vary from one country to the next and so findings from other countries may not apply to Scotland. Further, there was little literature available on some of the more prominent themes in the consultation and omnibus survey commissioned by the Scottish Government (2019a; 2019b), including underage sales and anti-social behaviour.
When are fireworks related injuries occurring?
The limited evidence available suggests that the number of fireworks related injuries may be remaining stable or increasing over time, rather than decreasing.
In England, it is unclear how the number of fireworks related injuries has changed over time. The number of fireworks related emergency department attendances in England has increased from 2,141 in 2009/10 to 4,506 in 2014/15 (Macneal et al., 2018). However, analysis of fireworks related injuries referred to one regional tertiary burns and plastic surgery unit in Chelmsford in England, found no increasing or decreasing trend between 2004 and 2014, with between 3 and 10 patients referred for firework related injuries in any given year (Nizamoglu et al., 2018).
The available data in Scotland suggests a similar picture. The number of emergency hospital admissions as a result of fireworks related injuries in Scotland shows no obvious trend from 2001/02 to 2017/18, with between 6 and 15 admissions in any given year (Information Services Division Scotland, 2019). These numbers do not account for instances where patients with injuries resulting from fireworks have attended Accident and Emergency departments without being admitted to hospital, so this figure may be an underestimation. However, data collected between 31st October and 10th November at the Royal Hospital for Children in Glasgow shows that the number of injuries among children resulting from fireworks and sparklers increased from 3 patients in 2015 to 7 patients in 2018 (Watson et al., 2019).
Research consistently finds a spike in fireworks related injuries around festivals.
Around the world, fireworks related injuries clearly spike around festivals. This has been found for eye injuries internationally (Jeyabal et al., 2019), as well as burns and trauma (Chang et al., 2016, Tadisina et al., 2014) and emergency department admissions in America (Canner et al., 2014). This is also seen in the UK, both with eye injuries (Knox et al., 2008) and burns and plastic surgery referrals (Nizamoglu et al., 2018).
A study from Australia also found that the 34.5% of injuries occurring on a day other than Territory Day were evenly distributed throughout the calendar year, and were more likely to have involved alcohol consumption and to injure the operator as opposed to a bystander (Read et al., 2017).
The studies above suggest that fireworks related injuries could be prevented by regulating the use of fireworks during festival periods, and focusing on alcohol consumption and operator instructions at other times of the year.
Where are people most likely to get injured by fireworks?
Most fireworks related injuries occur at private displays (e.g. in gardens) or in streets and other public places, not at formally organised displays.
The evidence, although limited, suggests that the majority of fireworks related injuries in the UK occur at private firework displays at homes, and in streets and other public places (Macneal et al., 2018; Khanna, 2003; Knox et al., 2008). As of 2010, there had only been one reported incident of severe eye injury resulting from organised public firework displays in the UK (Pringle et al., 2010, cited in Jeyabal et al., 2019). If Scottish statistics relating to fireworks related injuries from 2010 to 2019 show a similar pattern, this could suggest that a focus on private use of fireworks could target the majority of injuries. Further research would be required to determine whether this is the case.
Who is most likely to be injured by fireworks?
The limited evidence available suggests that both bystanders and operators are at risk.
Studies from the UK (Knox et al., 2008 and Macneal et al., 2018) and Australia (Janagaraj, 2019) suggest that fireworks related injuries affect both bystanders and operators, however it is unclear which group is more at risk.
There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that operator injuries have the scope to be more serious than bystander injuries (Clark and Watson, 2006 and Tadisina et al., 2014), and that females and children may be more likely to be injured as bystanders (Read et al., 2017), but further research would be required to determine whether this applies in Scotland.
Research consistently finds that young people and males are most at risk.
Studies from America, Australia and international reviews find that males are most likely to suffer fireworks related injuries (Canner et al., 2014; Cao et al., 2018; Chang et al., 2016; Jeyabal et al., 2019; Moore et al., 2014; Read et al., 2017; Sandvall, Jacobsen et al., 2017; and Witsaman et al., 2016), with the largest gender difference amongst young people (Jeyabal et al., 2019; Canner et al., 2014 and Moore et al., 2014).
These studies also find that young people, often defined as those under 18 or aged 5-20 years, sustain most fireworks related injuries (Canner et al., 2014; Cao et al., 2018; Janagaraj, 2019; Jeyabal et al., 2019; Moore et al., 2014; and Witsaman et al., 2016). Other studies of arguably more serious fireworks related injuries have found the mean age of patients to be between 20 and 27 (Chang et al., 2016; Sandvall, Jacobsen et al., 2017; and Tadisina et al., 2014), suggesting that more serious injuries may typically involve young adults as opposed to children.
An increased risk for young people (Ahmad, 2010; Knox et al., 2008; Macneal et al., 2018; and Nizamoglu et al., 2018) and males (Knox et al., 2008 and Nizamoglu et al., 2018) is also found in the UK. According to records from the Royal Hospital for Children in Glasgow, fireworks related injuries affected more males than females, with 14 males compared to 4 females (aged between 2 and 15) injured by fireworks and sparklers between 2015 and 2018 (Watson et al., 2019). This highlights the potential need for awareness and prevention programmes to target young males in particular.
What are the most common fireworks related injuries?
Common fireworks related injuries affect hands and heads, and involve burns.
According to international reviews, the most common fireworks related injuries involve the head and neck region, followed by hands (Jeyabal et al., 2019), with head injuries often damaging eyes (Cao et al., 2018). Studies from the US find the majority of fireworks related injuries affect the head and neck, shoulder and upper arm region, and hands, with the most common type of injury being burns (Moore et al., 2014 and Canner et al., 2014). Burns, hand and eye injuries prevail in Australia too (Read et al., 2017).
Going into more detail, research from the US suggests spectators are more likely to sustain ocular than non-ocular injuries (Chang et al., 2016), and hand injuries most commonly damage the thumb and first web space (Sandvall, Keys et al., 2017).
In the UK, studies suggest that hand injuries are most common, followed by those to the head and neck (Ahmad, 2010; Nizamoglu et al., 2018; and Watson et al., 2019). Burns and impact from the force of blasts were found to cause most of these injuries (Nizamoglu et al., 2018).
How severe do fireworks related injuries tend to be?
Fireworks related injuries often require specialist treatment and surgical intervention.
In the UK, fireworks related injuries have been found to require referral to burns centres or admission for supportive treatment and specialty management in up to half of cases (Ahmad, 2010). Of those referred to burns centres and specialty management, around a third of patients may require surgery for their wounds (Macneal et al., 2018 and Nizamoglu et al., 2018). In Glasgow, cases have been reported of patients with permanent disfiguration of the hands after fireworks have exploded in them (Clark and Watson, 2006). Similarly, surgery has been found to be required for over half of patients with fireworks related eye injuries in the UK, with over half of patients suffering severe vision loss 6 months after injury (Knox et al., 2008).
This trend persists internationally, with between 16% and 38% of eye injuries resulting in permanent vision loss (Cao et al., 2016; Chang et al., 2016; and Jeyabal et al., 2019). In Australia, fireworks related injuries are more often classified as moderate and severe injuries than mild ones, with almost half of patients requiring hospital admission for further treatment (Janagaraj, 2019). It was also found that children were more likely to require hospital admission for treatment than adults (ibid.). In the Netherlands, there have been cases of patients requiring multidisciplinary treatment and multiple reconstructive surgeries (Molendijkj et al., 2016), highlighting the potential severity of fireworks related injuries to the face.
Fireworks related injuries can sometimes be fatal.
Cases of fireworks related deaths have been reported in the US, with some patients dying as a result of severe injuries to the face after being directly involved with fireworks (Tadisina et al., 2014) and another as a result of severe injuries to the heart and liver after trying to light a large, modified firework (Fulcher et al., 2015). Another case study from Italy reports a case of accidental death involving the explosion of more than 1.5 kg of professional fireworks in a private residence (Romolo et al., 2014).
These highlight the serious nature of the injuries that can result from both commercial and professional grade fireworks.
There have also been cases of suicides involving fireworks in the US and Switzerland (Hlavaty et al., 2019 and Zwirner et al., 2017).
Which types of fireworks are typically involved in injuries?
Mortars and rockets cause the majority of serious eye and hand injuries.
Eye injuries in the US (Chang et al., 2016) and the UK (Knox et al., 2008) are most commonly caused by mortars and rockets, with shells/mortars disproportionately causing permanent eye and hand impairments (Sandvall, Jacobsen et al., 2017). A modified mortar firework has also been responsible for a death in the US (Fulcher et al., 2015).
Rockets have also been found to be responsible for serious eye injury internationally, injuring both operators and bystanders (Jeyabal et al., 2019) and two cases of severe blast injuries to the face in the Netherlands (Molendijkj et al., 2016).
However, sparklers, fountains and firecrackers are also frequent sources of injury.
Sparklers and fountains/flares can cause minor burns but if igniting clothes could get hot enough to cause third degree burns (Cao et al., 2018 and Jeyabal et al., 2019). In the US, the majority of emergency department admissions are caused by firecrackers, sparklers and novelty devices, as well as aerial devices, with sparkler injuries mostly affecting children under the age of 10 (Moore et al., 2014).
How can legislation help to reduce fireworks related injuries?
Bans and restrictions reduce the number of fireworks related injuries, but do not completely prevent them.
In the US, states with legislation banning or restricting the use of fireworks have 7 times fewer fireworks related eye injuries (Jeyabal et al., 2019) and up to 3 times fewer burns and trauma injuries (Epstein et al., 2018). Case studies of severe facial injuries are reported from states both with laws against fireworks and with little restriction (Tadisina et al., 2014), suggesting that while average numbers of injuries may be reduced, serious fireworks injuries can still occur regardless of regulation.
We see similar trends in Europe. In Norway there was a 50% reduction in the number of incidents of fireworks related eye injuries after bottle rockets were banned in 2008 (Jeyabal et al., 2019).
In Northern Ireland, fireworks related eye trauma increased after the ban on fireworks was lifted in 1996, and reduced again when restrictions were reintroduced in 2002 (Chan et al., 2004). In Newcastle in England, it was found in 2008 that no banger-related injuries to children had occurred since legislation was introduced banning banger fireworks in 1996/97 (Edwin et al., 2008), though this situation could have changed since. In addition, after sales were restricted in 2003/04, 83% of children's fireworks related injuries occurred during the period where sales were permitted (ibid.).
Restrictions or regulations may be most effective if targeting consumer fireworks during festival periods.
As of 2010, there had only been one reported incidence of severe eye injury resulting from public firework displays in the UK (Pringle et al., 2010 cited in Jeyabal et al., 2019), suggesting that public firework displays pose significantly lower risks to injury and need not be restricted.
The majority of fireworks related injuries in the UK occur in October and November, with half occurring in November alone (Nizamoglu et al., 2018). This coincides with high use and availability of fireworks in the UK, a trend also seen in other countries including America (Canner et al., 2014; Chang et al., 2016; Jeyabal et al., 2019; and Tadisina et al., 2014) and Australia (Read et al., 2017). This suggests that new restrictions and regulations could be most effective in reducing injuries by targeting fireworks festival periods.
It has been suggested that introducing graphic warnings on fireworks packaging may reduce the number of fireworks related injuries.
The British Association of Plastic Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons (BAPRAS) have suggested that introducing graphic warning images on firework packaging, which show the potential injuries caused by misuse, could help to reduce the number of fireworks related injuries in the UK (BAPRAS, 2018). A poll carried out by YouGov found that nearly 70% of parents in the UK would support this use of graphic warnings to warn of the dangers of and deter the misuse of fireworks (ibid.). However, there is no evidence to show how effective this approach may be.
How else might we reduce the number of injuries?
Offering free protective equipment could reduce firework-related eye injuries.
An international literature review on firework-related eye injuries found that, in Norway, there was a reduction in the number of incidents after protective glasses were offered for free with the purchase of fireworks (Jeyabal et al., 2019). In the UK, it has also been argued that protective glasses could avoid serious ocular injury to those handling fireworks (Knox et al., 2008).
Awareness campaigns have been found to reduce fireworks related injuries in countries abroad, and could be particularly effective if targeting parents.
Increased public awareness through campaigning by both government and nongovernment organisations has been shown to reduce the incidence of burns from fireworks around Diwali in India (Puri et al., 2009 cited in Nizamoglu et al., 2018). Some resources and good practice guides already exist in the UK, such as the Explosives Industry Group guides (2018a and 2018b) and the Fireworks Code.
However, it is unclear who these should target. While young people have been found most at risk of fireworks injuries, some evidence suggests adult supervision has no influence on the risk of injury to children (Jeyabal et al., 2019). On the other hand, almost half of the 15-16 year olds planning to get hold of fireworks in Scotland planned to do so by asking their parents to buy them for them (Under Age Sales, 2016). This suggests that targeting parents could help to limit injuries to children by reducing underage sales of fireworks.
How do fireworks contribute to air pollution?
Fireworks pollute the air with fine and coarse particulate matter, however the extent of this in Scotland is unclear.
Fireworks explosions emit gases as well as small particles referred to as particulate matter. This particulate matter is generally classified in terms of size, with particles less than 2.5 μm in diameter classed as 'fine' and those with diameters between
2.5 and 20 μm classed as 'coarse'.
Internationally, the concentrations of both kinds of particulate matter during fireworks festivals are between 0.42 - 5 times higher than background values (Cao et al., 2018 and Seidel and Birnbaum, 2015). However, these increased concentrations seem to last for an average of 6 hours (Cao et al., 2018) and drop off within 16 hours in the US (Seidel and Birnbaum, 2015), suggesting that the environmental impact may not be long term, and be limited to the aftermath of the firework.
No evidence was identified for this review on the extent to which fireworks pollute Scotland's air. However, in the face of insufficient information on the pollution caused by fireworks in Malta, a study used fireworks emission factors and trade information to estimate the total load of coarse dust particles emitted (Camilleri and Vella, 2016). Their data and modelling approach could potentially be used to assess the environmental risk from display fireworks in Scotland, depending of the robustness of the method and replicability within the Scottish context.
The particulate matter emitted by fireworks can contain metals and other heavy inorganic elements.
Internationally, particulate matter sampled during fireworks has been found to contain greater amounts of metals than during the rest of the year, which if sufficiently high can have adverse effects on the environment (Lin, 2016). A study from Hungary also found higher levels of heavy inorganic elements in settled dust after a fireworks display. However, there was more deposited dust on foliage and leaves after the show in general, suggesting that the pollution from fireworks affects inhalable air more than settled dust (Baranyai et al., 2014).
Fireworks may also cause fires that pollute the air with carbon emissions, although the extent of this in Scotland is unknown.
Fireworks cause about 18,000 fires a year in the US, with more fires reported to fire departments on July 4th than any other day of the year (Ellis and McWhirter, 2015). However, states with strict laws restricting fireworks sales have 50 times fewer fireworks related fires than those with no laws (Jeyabal et al., 2019).
How do fireworks contribute to water contamination?
Fine particulate matter can dissolve in water and contaminate various water sources, however there is no evidence of this in the UK.
Internationally, higher concentrations of ultra-fine particles (with diameters less than 1 μm) that can dissolve in water have been found during and shortly after fireworks displays (Lin, 2016). These particles have the potential to contaminate water sources.
Fireworks are one of the main contributors of one such particle, called perchlorate (Sijimol and Mohan, 2014). Perchlorate contamination affects both groundwater and surface water, particularly in areas surrounding fireworks manufacturing and displays. In Malta, perchlorate contamination is almost entirely caused by fireworks, with this pollution affecting the quality of its limited water resources (Pace and Vella, 2019 and Vella et al., 2015). However, is important to note that no studies from the UK have identified perchlorate contamination as an issue (Sijimol and Mohan, 2014).
How do geological factors mediate the extent of pollution caused by fireworks?
Local air pollution, the cultural significance of fireworks and meteorological factors can all influence the impacts of fireworks on the environment.
For example, although the absolute increase caused by fireworks is higher in India, its higher background concentration from local air pollution means that the relative increase for both fine and coarse particulate matter concentration is lower than in Western countries (Lin, 2016).
The influence of cultural connections to fireworks can be seen in Malta, where celebration of religious festivals over the summer months leads to a greater number of fireworks being set off over a longer period of time, which can cause higher particle concentrations (Sijimol and Mohan, 2014). This intense and sustained use of fireworks has led pollution to affect the quality of its limited water resources, in a seemingly unique way that would not apply to the UK (Pace and Vella, 2019).
Further, Malta's urban landscape and small size means that perchlorate pollution may be longer lasting than in other countries as settled dust may be re-suspended and deposited (Vella et al., 2015). A different meteorological factor at play in the Netherlands is stagnant weather, as ultra-fine particles absorb water from the humid weather and increase in size. Their increased size causes them to scatter and absorb more visible light, thus reducing visibility (ten Brink et al., 2018). However, it is unclear whether these factors apply to Scotland, as no evidence was identified for this review which explored the Scottish context.
What are the main health risks associated with fireworks emissions?
Fireworks emit particulate matter and gases made up of elements that are potentially toxic to human health.
The effects of inhaling and touching gas and particle pollutants from fireworks are unclear, but may involve short and long term health effects (Cao et al., 2018). Short term health effects may include asthma attacks, coughs, fever and severe asthma, and even pneumonia (Hirai et al., 2000). Longer term health effects may also include respiratory and cardiovascular system diseases, and an increased risk of cancer. Even short term reductions in air quality can cause these kinds of non-cancerous health issues (Lin, 2016), however the size of these effects is unclear.
High build-up of metal elements through both fine and coarse particulate matter in the body can adversely affect human health. According to the World Health Organisation, the threshold for concern is 50 μg/m3 for coarse particulate matter (2006). However, there is evidence to suggest that fine and ultrafine particles from fireworks have worse health effects than coarse particles (Lin, 2016). During fireworks events in the UK, concentrations of potentially toxic elements in fine particles are higher at night than during the day (Hamad et al., 2015). This study found that these elements pose non-cancerous risks to both adults and children at night, but only children during the day (ibid.).
Studies specifically looking at the impact of perchlorates, which are emitted during the production and emission of fireworks, have found these particles can disrupt thyroid function. This results in hormonal deficits, which can cause difficulty in processing visual-spatial information, poor sensorimotor coordination, and memory/attention deficits. However, no studies from the UK have identified this as an issue in the literature (Sijimol and Mohan, 2014).
How can the environmental impacts of fireworks be minimised?
There is some evidence from outwith Scotland to suggest that restricting firework use could benefit the environment by reducing pollution from fireworks emissions as well as secondary fires.
In the US, more fires are reported to fire departments on July 4th than any other day of the year (Ellis and McWhirter, 2015) and states with strict laws restricting fireworks sales have 50 times fewer fireworks related fires than those with no laws (Jeyabal et al., 2019). Restricting firework use could therefore reduce the number of fires and consequent pollution.
In China, two cities that had banned fireworks were found to have peak pollutant concentrations 4-6 times lower than two that permit the sale and use of fireworks for certain festival periods in 2016 (Cao et al., 2018). The findings from this study suggest that restricting or banning fireworks could also reduce the amount of direct pollution caused by fireworks emissions.
However, no evidence was identified for this review that explored these potential impacts in Scotland.
Switching from micro to nano sized powders, using sulphur-free propellants or applying nitrogen-rich compounds could help to minimise fireworks related pollution.
While using nano size powders in fireworks could reduce the volume of mixture required to produce a given sound level and therefore reduce pollution, these would be highly flammable and pose health and safety risks in the production and handing of fireworks (Azhagurajan and Selvakumar, 2014).
Alternatively, a sulphur-free propellant has been found to be a suitable replacement for black powder, with low sensitivity and excellent storage performance (Sun et al., 2017).
If such composition changes are not feasible, it has also been suggested that applying nitrogen rich compounds can help to lessen the effects of perchlorate contamination caused by fireworks (Sijimol and Mohan, 2014).
How much noise do fireworks produce?
Fireworks can raise background noise levels by several dozen dB, with peak sound levels of up to 137 dB.
The international mean noise level during fireworks has been found to be 90 dB, which is 1.2 times higher than the background value in commercial areas at night (Cao et al., 2018). This background noise level exceeds permissible levels in Spain, India and China (ibid.).
Sound recordings taken in Japan, Poland and Portugal have found similar results, with continuous sound levels as high as 97 dB (Tanaka et al., 2016), and peak sounds of up to 137 dB (Passos et al., 2015), high enough to be harmful to human hearing (Kukulski et al., 2018).
What are the main health risks associated with the noise created by fireworks?
Peak sound levels from fireworks are more harmful than increased background noise levels.
Exposure to loud, impulsive noise poses a greater risk to human health than exposure to loud, continuous noise (Passos et al., 2015). Young people and pregnant women may be particularly at risk, as the maximum peak sound level limit is set 5 dB lower for these groups (Kukulski et al., 2018). Maximum background sound levels from fireworks can be as high as 95-97 dB for spectators (Tanaka et al., 2016).
The sound levels from fireworks often exceed EU limits for occupational noise (80-85 dB), such as for police officers and sound, lights and fireworks operators (Passos et al., 2015). Peak sound pressure levels recorded in Poland (Kukulski et al., 2018) and Japan (Tanaka et al., 2016) have been found to exceed their respective occupational noise limits. This suggests that the noise from fireworks could be damaging to those working with and around them.
The loud noise created by fireworks can cause distress to those with noise sensitivity, including Autistic people.
According to the NHS Information Centre (2012), more than 1 in 100,000 people in the UK are Autistic. A common symptom of Autism is extreme noise sensitivity, which can lead children to develop avoidance reactions, such as leaving noisy places to find quieter ones. This may lead them to miss out on social opportunities at festivals that involve loud fireworks. Additionally, the noise from fireworks may induce panic in Autistic children, leading them to leave their home, get lost, or even suffer a serious accident (Valentinuzzi, 2018).
How can the effects of fireworks noise be minimised?
Remote launch platforms could reduce the impacts of fireworks noise on operators.
If pyrotechnicians could use remote launching devices 20-30 m from the launch site this could reduce the peak sound levels that they are exposed to by approximately 35 dB, keeping them under harmful levels (Tanaka et al., 2016).
4.4. Animal welfare
How does the noise from fireworks impact on animal welfare?
The fear response to noise from fireworks can have adverse impacts on animals, though most research is based on studies with dogs.
Many animals have an acute sense of hearing, with various types of mammals and birds shown to have broader hearing ranges than humans and to hear noises of frequencies multiple times higher (Carlson, 2004 cited in Hargave, 2015). As a result, sensitivity to the sounds caused by fireworks is common in many types of domestic and wild animal.
Sensitivity to novel, loud or sudden sounds is particularly common in dogs (Levine, 2009), with three quarters of dog owners reporting noise sensitivity of their dog (Iimura, 2006 cited in Blackwell et al., 2013). This means that fear of noise is a commonly reported behavioural problem (Blackwell et al., 2013; Dale et al., 2010, Fatjó and Ruiz-de-la-Torre, 2006, cited in Dale et al., 2010). The unpredictable, intermittent and high-intensity nature of fireworks noise may explain why dogs fear them (Cracknell and Mills, 2008, cited in Blackwell et al., 2013).
Fireworks, along with thunder and gunshots, are one of the noises most feared by dogs (Blackwell et al., 2013; Landsberg et al., 2003 cited in Gates et al., 2019 and Shull-Selcer and Stagg, 1991, cited in Dale et al., 2010), with between 46% and 63% of dog owners recognising this fear of noise in their dogs (Blackwell et al., 2013; Dale et al., 2010; and Gates et al., 2019). However, this could be an underestimation as inexperienced owners may miss signs of fear in their dog (Storengen and Lingaas, 2015).
The behavioural signs of fear and anxiety in response to noise from fireworks in dogs can include trembling, cowering or hiding, soliciting human attention, increased vigilance or startle response, loss of appetite and barking (Blackwell et al., 2013 and Landsberg et al., 2003 cited in Gates et al., 2019). The most chronic stress responses can include vomiting, severe self-injury and accidental trauma (Sheppard and Mills, 2003 and Bowen, 2008, both cited in Gates et al., 2019).
If left untreated, fear of noise from fireworks can lead to phobias in dogs.
A phobia is a sudden, excessive and profound fear (Storengen and Lingaas, 2015). Phobic symptoms can persist after the feared stimulus is removed, interfering with normal functioning (Palestrini, 2009). Research has shown that dogs commonly develop phobias where fear of noise from fireworks is left untreated (Blackwell et al., 2013). This means that everyday noises similar to the sound of fireworks can become phobic stimuli, leading dogs to become increasingly resistant, aggressive, and have reduced capacity to engage with their environment (Blackwell et al., 2005 and Estelles et al., 2005 cited in Dale et al., 2010). Noise fears and phobias can therefore present a significant welfare concern for dogs, as well as being distressing for owners (Dreschel and Granger, 2005 and Sherman and Mills, 2008, both cited in Blackwell et al., 2013).
Fear of noise from fireworks can vary between dog breeds, as well as with age, sex and other risk factors.
Generally, pure breeds tend to be more likely to show fear responses to noises than cross-breeds (Blackwell et al., 2013), suggesting that some breeds may be predisposed to fear loud noises. Significant differences in noise sensitivity have been found between breeds of dog, with Norwegian Buhund, Irish Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier and Lagotto Romagnolowere breeds most likely to fear noise and Boxer, Chinese Crested and Great Dane dogs least likely to be noise sensitive (Storengen and Lingaas, 2015).
Fear has also been found to be higher in older and female dogs (Storengen and Lingaas, 2015). Other risk factors include traumatic experiences of noise exposure, learning fear from other fearful dogs, and owners responding in a way that reinforces the dog's fear (Landsberg et al., 2003 cited in Gates et al., 2019).
Cats and small mammals such as guinea pigs and rabbits are also impacted by the noise from fireworks, but this is underreported.
Although much of the evidence on the negative impact of the noise of fireworks on animals is based on research with dogs, there is evidence to suggest that cats and other small mammals (e.g. rabbits, rats, ferrets, chinchillas, and guinea pigs) experience adverse effects.
Noise sensitivity is reported less in pets other than dogs (Levine, 2009), however this may be due to how they cope with exposures (Hargrave, 2015). In particular, cats and other small mammals are more likely to run from loud sounds, attempt to escape, exhibit hiding, shivering and cowering behaviours, or freeze (Bolster, 2012; Dale et al., 2010; Gale et al., 2019, and Gates et al., 2019). As a result of these less 'owner-identifiable' fear responses, distress of cats and small mammals is often perceived as less serious by owners (Gale et al., 2019), even going unnoticed (Hargrave, 2015).
Further, given that the first response of cats is typically flight, they have less opportunity for gradual desensitisation compared to dogs, meaning that in some cases cats are more likely to suffer anxiety on repeated exposure (Hargrave, 2015).
Fireworks noise also affects horses and birds.
Horses are considered highly unpredictable flight animals, and are reactive to loud noises and flashing lights (LeGuin et al., 2005, cited in Gronqvist et al., 2016). As such, fireworks have been shown to cause significant stress for horses (Gronqvist et al., 2016), with between half and four fifths of horse owners reporting that their horse was frightened of or anxious around fireworks (Gates et al., 2019 and Gronqvist et al., 2016). Fear of the sound of fireworks played from a CD can cause higher cortisol (stress hormone) levels in horses than the sound of coat clippers or social isolation (Young et al., 2012).
Fear of fireworks in horses can lead to weaving, decreased appetite, bucking/rearing, hiding, trembling/shivering, sweating and running/escaping behaviours (Gates et al., 2019 and Gronqvist et al., 2016). The most common fear behaviours reported by horse owners are escaping, followed by shivering and hiding (Gates et al., 2019). Running/escaping is a particularly dangerous fear response as it sometimes leads to physical injuries from running into fences or other objects (Gronqvist et al., 2016).
There is also a small body of evidence which indicates that the noise of fireworks can negatively affect birds. A survey of pet owners found that of the 3,370 chickens and aviary birds owned, 9.3% were reported to be frightened of fireworks, with the majority hiding in response, followed by shivering and cowering (Gates et al., 2019). Further, research from the Netherlands suggests that wild birds are also disturbed by firework use, flying up to altitudes of several hundred metres for at least 45 minutes after New Year's fireworks were set off (Shamoun-Baranes et al., 2011). As such, while fireworks may not be directly lethal to birds, they could potentially result in mortality due to disorientation, stress, crashing into obstacles, or encountering inclement weather usually avoided once in the air (ibid.).
How can the effects of fireworks noise on animals be mitigated?
There are short-term and long term measures available to mitigate the impact of noise from fireworks on animals, though preventive approaches are the most successful.
In the short-term, there are immediate control methods available to help manage fear of noises (Dale et al., 2010). These include keeping animals indoors and ensuring they have access to safe places, such as dens (Bolster, 2012 and Hargrave, 2015). Owners can also close windows, darken rooms, and play background noise such as the television (ibid.). It is also important that owners do not react to their pet's fear with comforting behaviours, as these can increase the severity and duration of fear responses over time in dogs and cats (Dale et al., 2010).
In addition to behavioural measures, animals with extreme fear responses can benefit from the administration of anxiolytic drugs, such as sedatives and benzodiazepines (Seksel and Lindeman 2001, cited in Dale et al., 2010; Mills et al., 2003, cited in Dale et al., 2010). However, it is not advised to use these on a long-term basis (Bolster, 2012).
There are also longer term measures which can be put in place to address noise-related fears. In particular, a system of desensitisation and counter-conditioning can be used to reduce the emotional effect of fireworks (Mills et al., 2003 cited in Dale et al., 2010; Levine et al., 2007; Levine and Mills, 2008, cited in Dale et al., 2010), which involves gradually exposing the animal to a recording of fireworks at increasing levels, usually in association with some form of reward (Bowen and Heath, 2005, cited in Dale et al., 2010). This procedure typically takes several weeks or months to complete, and therefore requires long-term owner commitment (Cracknell and Mills, 2008, cited in Dale et al., 2010).
Although there are short and long term measures available to mitigate the impact of noise from fireworks on animals, prevention has been shown to be the most effective approach (Hargrave, 2015). In particular, exposing young animals to the noise from fireworks very gradually at a low volume can habituate them to these noises, so that they are less likely to develop fears as they get older (Hargrave, 2015). Indeed, research has shown that animals that have experienced fewer opportunities for socialisation and habituation are predisposed to sound sensitivity (Hunthausen, 2009 and Seksel, 2009). As such, putting effort into early socialisation and habituation can mitigate the behavioural problems associated with noise from fireworks in later life (Hunthausen, 2009 and Seksel, 2009).
Despite the measures available to treat and manage fear of fireworks in animals, there is evidence that few owners seek professional help for the problem and self-manage the situation.
Dale et al. (2010) reported that only 16% of owners of dogs that displayed a fearful response to fireworks sought professional treatment, while Blackwell et al. (2013) found that 30% of owners sought help, with most of indicating that their own management was sufficient.
The evidence suggests this is mostly explained by owners thinking that the behaviours are mild enough that they can be managed without help (Blackwell et al., 2013). It is thought that owners may not fully appreciate the implications of failing to prevent, manage and treat sound sensitivities, may not be aware of the treatment options available (ibid.), or may not be willing to dedicate a significant amount of effort to follow available strategies (Talamonti et al., 2015). Owners of cats are less likely to engage in distractive and preventative measures than dog owners, as the less active fear responses of cats are perceived as less severe (Dale et al., 2010).
Blackwell et al. (2013) note the importance of increasing awareness among pet owners that treatment is both available and effective in dealing with fears of loud noises, and directing them towards appropriate sources of help.
What other impacts can fireworks have on animal welfare?
Ingesting fireworks and injuries from fireworks also present issues for animal welfare.
Ingesting fireworks can also be extremely dangerous for animals (Gahagan and Wismer, 2012). Most evidence relates to this in dogs, with potential consequences identified including gastroenteritis, vomiting, diarrhoea, lethargy, abdominal pain and salivation, and in more severe cases, oesophageal ulceration, gastrointestinal haemorrhage and cancer (Means, 2016).
A case of a dog ingesting a sparkler highlights the potential for life-threatening toxicosis, as barium poisoning resulted in muscle paralysis, muscle contractions, excess saliva and an irregular heart rhythm (Stanley et al., 2017).
Animals can also be injured by fireworks, either directly or indirectly (Dale et al., 2010). The majority of injuries to cats and dogs appear to occur indirectly through attempts to escape from fireworks (e.g. attempted avoidance of fireworks causing a road traffic accident and injuries from striking doors, windows and fences while attempting to escape), however there is also evidence of direct injury through accidental and deliberate misuse (ibid.). Similar injuries have been found for other pets, in addition to stress exacerbating existing medical conditions and injuries from chewing or scratching objects (Gates et al., 2019). Lacerations, strains/sprains and broken limbs are the most common injuries to horses, many resulting from horses breaking through fences while trying to escape from fireworks (Gronqvist et al., 2016).
4.5. Anti-social behaviour
The most commonly reported fireworks related charges in Scotland are throwing, casting or firing a firework in a public place and underage possession of adult fireworks.
According to data from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) (2019), the most common fireworks related charge between 2002/03 and 2018/19 was throwing, casting or firing a firework in a public place (Explosives Act 1875 S80). There were 655 of these charges over this time period, with 284 dealt with through direct measures (e.g. fixed penalty notice) and 217 through summary measures (less serious case heard in front of a Sheriff or Justice of the Peace, without a jury).
According to the same data (ibid.), the second most common fireworks related charge in Scotland between 2002/03 and 2018/19 was possession of an adult firework by a person under 18 years (Firework (Scotland) Regulations 2004 R4(1)). There were 322 of these charges, and most (205) were dealt with through direct measures.
Most 15-16 year olds in Scotland who plan to obtain fireworks say they will do so by asking their parents to buy them for them.
A UK-wide survey of 15-16 year olds regarding their attitude to purchasing age restricted products found that one in five (20.20%) respondents said that they would be getting fireworks, with boys slightly more likely to get fireworks than girls (21.75% boys; 18.70% girls). Interestingly, 15/16 year olds in Scotland (13.75%) were significantly less likely to be getting hold of fireworks (Under Age Sales, 2016).
Of those 15/16 year olds that said they would be getting fireworks in Scotland (n=11), 5 said they would ask their parents to buy them and 4 said they would ask an older friend to buy them. 2 said they would buy the fireworks themselves without using any form of ID and dressing normally. Despite the small sample size, this highlights the need to target parents in awareness campaigns.
Celebrating the 5th November and other religious and cultural festivals equally may be key to maintaining a shared sense of identity in our multicultural society.
Ashcroft (2018) argues that tensions may develop in society when the value of different traditions is questioned, with one deemed more important than the other, especially when there is a political power imbalance behind this. Conversely, the respect and integration of traditions from different cultures can facilitate better social cohesion (Ashcroft, 2018). Therefore, if the use of fireworks is restricted to specific festival dates, then consideration must be given to allowing fireworks for celebrations from all cultures and religions.
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