Forego fireworks for good air on New Year’s Eve? How does particulate matter affect health?

At the end of the year, there is a regular discussion about whether fireworks should be dispensed with on New Year’s Eve or whether they should even be officially banned. This year, the discussion was additionally fuelled by the situation with Corona and the ban last year, which was mainly due to Corona.

Obvious in the truest sense – i.e., visible to the naked eye – is the undeniable exposure to particulate matter after the New Year’s Eve fireworks display on 31 December. The arguments this year revolved around the issue that, according to the Federal Environment Agency, the concentration calculated on the basis of experimentally determined emission factors was only half as high as previously stated (see Umweltbundesamt). Supporters of fireworks also argued that it was only a short-term exposure.

First, the numbers: The new calculation type has halved the assumed amount of particulate matter released by New Year’s Eve fireworks to 2,050 tonnes. According to the Federal Environment Agency, fireworks now account for just under one per cent of the total annual PM10 emissions and just under two per cent of the total annual PM2.5 emissions. However, this also means that on New Year’s Eve, the PM10 pollution is more than three times as high as on an average day; the PM2.5 pollution is even seven times as high.

Nevertheless, it remains a short-term exposure. Unfortunately, scientific evidence shows that even short-term exposure to PM2.5 has effects on mortality and also worsens the situation of people with cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. There are also corresponding indications for particles in the PM10 category and ultra-fine particulates.

On the one hand, the danger comes from the particles themselves. The larger particles burden the respiratory tract all the way to the lungs. The smaller particles reach the blood via the respiratory tract – alveoli pathway, which becomes more viscous and increases the risk of a heart attack. Via the bloodstream, however, they also reach other organs or the brain, where strokes can be caused. In addition, dangerous substances such as heavy metals or aluminium can accumulate on the surfaces of the particles, which can then cause cancer, for example. Since smaller particles offer a proportionally larger surface area, they also pose a particular danger.

The chemical processes affected by particulate matter in the lungs were investigated by researchers from Mainz together with colleagues from California: The small amounts of hydrogen peroxide produced in the lungs by natural processes usually are converted for the most part by the body’s own enzymes into harmless molecules such as water. Particulate matter, however, competes with these enzymes and causes hydrogen peroxide to turn into aggressive hydroxyl radicals. These compounds damage lung tissue (read more here).

More on air pollution in our Wiki.

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