In America, fireworks are often used during festivals, sporting events and holidays like Independence Day and New Year’s Eve. According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, there are around 268 million pounds of fireworks purchased in the U.S. each year. While these brightly colored explosives are considered an American favorite, their origins, and supply chain can be traced back to China.
Firecrackers were first invented around 200 B.C. by the Chinese, who would ward off evil by throwing bamboo stalks into fires to make explosions. Fireworks evolved from then with the introduction of gunpowder a thousand years later. It is rumored that between 600-800 A.D. an alchemist, seeking the formula for eternal life, accidentally created gunpowder when a mixture of sulfur, charcoal and potassium nitrate caught on fire. This mixture was then added to bamboo stalks and paper tubes to create fireworks. Fireworks would catch on in Europe and Arabia in the 13th century, as would gunpowder weapons. According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, “Italians were the first Europeans to manufacture fireworks” and are credited with making fireworks an art form as they experimented with color and aerial projection. The Europeans’ love of fireworks was brought over to the New World by U.S. settlers, and fireworks were used to commemorate Independence Day on July 4, 1777. Since then Americans have continued the tradition. However, China still produces about 94% of all fireworks imported to the U.S.
Modern large fireworks are made of plastic shells, papier-mache and sometimes thick paper that covers compartments of chemical powders separated by cardboard. Each chemical combination and product design produces a different reaction, which is responsible for the large variety of fireworks we see today. Workers carefully measure, weigh and sift chemical components and mix these components by hand or in a drum with rotating paddles. The components are then packed and fuses are carefully placed, each fuse placement responsible for a differently timed explosion. The process to create smaller fireworks varies. For instance, sparklers are made by “dipping a metal wire in a slurry containing a fuel, an oxidizer, a coloring agent, and aluminum granules, which provide the sparks.” No matter the size, workers must be careful especially during the mixing and packing process as friction can cause ingredients to ignite.
“Producing fireworks is a dangerous and hazardous profession, which can lead to loss of limbs or worse, a loss of life,” explained Patrick Penfield, an assistant professor of supply chain at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management. “Every year, people die in firework factories due to the combustion of the fireworks or their exposure to hazardous chemicals used in making the fireworks.”
According to Penfield, Chinese firework factories are required by law to give to a fund that compensates firework workers who are injured or killed in a fireworks factory accident. There have also been a number of bans and regulations set not only for firework manufacturing but for exporting and selling.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Department of Homeland Security inspect imports to ensure consumer product safety standards and hazardous material transport regulations are met. While the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives regulates the sales of fireworks, which are broken up in the U.S. in two categories: Display Fireworks and Consumer Fireworks. Different permits and licenses are required for each category depending on the level of activity of the importer and seller. Licensed Customs Brokers can help prepare paperwork for firework permits.
“It takes roughly a month to receive a container shipment of fireworks from China and less than a week to produce,” shared Patrick Penfield.
Fireworks are typically purchased wholesale. Once purchased with the correct license and shipped, fireworks are made available for by retailers for consumer and commercial purchase. However, many factors play a role in the purchase of fireworks. For example, weather can decrease the number of fireworks sold around or during an event or holiday.
“If it rains on the Fourth of July or prior firework sales decrease,” claimed Penfield.
But, perhaps one of the most important factors in the purchasing of fireworks are state and county regulations since fireworks can be considered illegal in different parts of the U.S.
“We are now seeing more states allowing individuals to actually buy their own fireworks because of tax revenue streams,” said Penfield. “Different counties within New York have different laws and regulations on the sale of fireworks. In some counties they are prohibited; in other counties, the local Wal-Mart or a “pop-up” stand will sell fireworks for one or two months before Independence Day. In states and counties that permit the sale of fireworks, there are firework superstores focused just for the sale of fireworks (as large as 100,000 square feet).”
Penfield hopes retailers, consumers and commercial buyers will become more familiar with the various regulations around fireworks. This can prevent potential criminal charges and the harmful sale of display fireworks to unlicensed buyers.
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