Icelanders’ tradition of setting off huge amounts of fireworks on New Year’s Eve has been the subject of debate this year due to its environmental impact. Firework sales are the main source of funding for the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue (ICE-SAR), who carry out essential service to the public.
Managing Director of ICE-SAR Jón Svanberg Hjartarson says he understands pollution from the fireworks can be harmful to those with respiratory issues such as asthma, “but we sell fireworks first and foremost to raise funds for the rescue teams,” he told RÚV. Iceland has no army and limited police and firefighting services, making ICE-SAR’s rescue squads an integral part of public protection and disaster relief around the country. ICE-SAR is mostly staffed by volunteers, and fundraising proceeds go to necessary equipment and training. If the sale of fireworks were to be banned, Jón states, the government would need to come up with a way to fund the association’s work.
Freezing temperatures and still weather are expected on New Year’s Eve, which will cause pollution from the fireworks to stick around for longer. Fireworks cause elevated levels of suspended particulate matter, in addition to containing heavy metals such as lead, copper, and zinc. In 2017, particulate matter levels reached more than 125 times average daily levels just after midnight on New Year’s Day. In the subsequent days, levels remained three times higher than what is considered safe.
In addition to their environmental impact and their effect on those with respiratory issues, fireworks are known to cause distress to pets and other animals, such as horses. Many have also pointed out the anxiety and distress fireworks can provoke in individuals with post-traumatic stress due to experiences of war and conflict.
Astronomy enthusiast and public figure Sævar Helgi Bragason tweeted encouraging Icelanders to support ICE-SAR with monetary donations instead of by purchasing fireworks. “Make your contribution, whatever amount you can manage, and reduce pollution along the way,” he stated. The tweet included a screenshot of his personal donation to the association.