From the first formal celebration July 4, 1777, in Philadelphia, annual Independence Day festivities have included dangerous traditions. Guns, cannons, and the orange flare of rockets marked the occasion early on. The holiday became more widely celebrated after the War of 1812, and fireworks were used increasingly to stop the discharge of guns and cannons. Now we’re faced with the dangers associated with the widespread use of fireworks, as well as those linked to their production abroad.

Dangers from inhalation of burning chemicals and the risk of maiming have been well-publicized in the United States for years. Many municipalities ban private possession and use of fireworks due to these risks. The sale and use of fireworks are illegal inside San Antonio city limits but allowed in most other areas of Bexar County.

Public service announcements focus on the dangers to consumers, often emphasizing risks of injury to children. What is rarely mentioned, however, are the risks associated with the production of fireworks and to the workers — including children — in other countries who produce them. 

As required by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005 and subsequent reauthorizations, the U.S. Department of Labor maintains a List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. The most recent list, updated June 23, confirms the use of child labor in the manufacture of fireworks in China, El Salvador, Guatemala, India, and Peru. China, the country which exports the most fireworks to the U.S., is confirmed to use adult forced labor as well.

It’s not just Americans who are addicted to this toxic thrill. Laws fail to stop the illegal use of fireworks in other countries. In India, the celebration of the country’s biggest holiday, Diwali, typically involves fireworks. Indian teachers, students, and the Rotary Club International banded together to stop fireworks manufacturing after laws had been passed to require children to attend school but they were still being forced to make fireworks instead. Public service announcements and postings from schools aimed to stop the demand for fireworks during the annual celebration of Diwali to prevent air and noise pollution as well as child labor. 

This opened the door for bans on fireworks in some states, as reported by India Today. More recently, India’s environmental court ordered a ban on fireworks during the festival in cities battling with poor air quality, citing a link between pollution and a coronavirus surge. The use of fireworks during Diwali is as closely tied to the celebration as it is to the Fourth of July in the U.S., yet campaigns like those for the prevention of child labor and air pollution have seen strong support.

In the U.S. we should be just as concerned about the dangers of fireworks and how our consumption has implications that extend far beyond our borders. Celebrating the Fourth of July with a practice that sustains such a harmful industry is not a true celebration of independence.

Rachel Cywinski lives in San Antonio because she wants to and advocates for a sustainable future.