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July 2, 2009 -- Fireworks are fun, exciting and often free to watch, but there may be a hidden cost: The flashing displays can harm the environment and pose risks to human health.Now, scientists are working on a new generation of kinder, gentler pyrotechnics.

While still explosive and dramatic, these fireworks produce less smoke and use fewer toxic metals that end up in soil and groundwater.Eco-friendly fireworks are more expensive than the regular kind, and it's too soon to expect your neighborhood Fourth of July display to use them.

But the research should be welcome news for people who operate or watch fireworks on a regular basis."Everyone at or downwind of a pyrotechnic display is getting subjected to levels of these metals that aren't natural levels," said David E.

Chavez, a chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

"Whether that really is going to cause health effects is up for debate."Disneyland provided the initial impetus for Chavez's group to start investigating cleaner burning fireworks.

Night after night, as the theme park put on spectacular fireworks displays, neighbors began to complain about smoke that was enveloping their homes and irritating their lungs.

Elsewhere, studies have shown a rise in asthma attacks during fireworks-filled festivals.Related Content:Fireworks: The All Natural Green Fireworks Come in All FireworksMore Discovery NewsWhile particle-filled smoke may be the most obvious concern, it's not the only issue -- or even the worst one.

Some of the metals that make fireworks colorful may also be poisonous when heated.

For example, antimony, which is sometimes used to produce the color white, can harm the lungs, heart, stomach and other organs.Barium, which provides a green hue, "does something really nasty to your insides and gastrointestinal tract," said Michael Hiskey, an explosive chemist at DMD Systems, a pyrotechnic research and development company.

Barium can also be toxic to the heart.Then there are perchlorates -- oxygen-rich molecules that allow the fuel in fireworks to burn.

Perchlorates appear in nuclear missiles, flares and rocket fuel for spacecraft.

So far, the Environmental Protection Agency has not set an upper limit for perchlorates in soil or water, even though the chemicals have been detected in drinking water in most states, as well as in breast milk and in store-bought cow's milk.Animal studies have linked perchlorates, such as potassium perchlorate and ammonium perchlorate, to thyroid problems.

Repeated pyrotechnic displays, especially ones that occur every day at theme parks, can take their toll.
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