Shake the Lake. Contaminate the Lake.

Fireworks displays, like Madison’s “Shake the Lake” are spectacular.  But, what chemicals are in fireworks?  How might they impact our air, land, and water?

This Saturday June 23, 2018 from 5-11 pm Madison, WI will stage its annual fireworks festival.  This year, as is has for the past several years, Madison’s fireworks organizers will have the pyrotechnics launched from a barge in the middle of Lake Monona.  This setting provides for easy viewing for those near and far.  Observers can watch from the nearby Monona Terrace, the Capitol Square, or from parks and residences around Lake Monona.

Previously known as Rhythm and Booms, the Madison fireworks festivals have had several different sponsoring groups and bounced around various land-based locations: Elver Park on the west side, Warner Park on the north side and, for the past few years, this annual display of patriotism has been staged on Lake Monona (one of the City’s four lakes) and hence is known as “Shake the Lake”.

The fireworks show is usually held just before the July 4th holiday so as to not compete with the many small community fireworks shows in the Dane County area.   “Shake the Lake” is sponsored by a variety of organizations:  Festival Foods, Madison Mallards (a minor league baseball team), one winery, seven breweries and/or brew pubs, a dentistry service, ands Group Health Cooperative, among others.

“Shake the Lake” is an afternoon-into-evening  event with food vendors, music, and a human cannonball launched into Lake Monona, all culminating with the fireworks show.

Ecological Condition of Madison’s Lakes

Madison justifiably takes pride in its five major lakes. They are a matter of civic pride. The City straddles a narrow isthmus between two of these lakes:  Lake Monona and the larger Lake Mendota.  The other lakes are Waubesa, Wingra, and Kegonsa.  The lakes provide Madison with a beautiful setting with lots of recreational opportunities such as running, biking, boating and swimming.

But over the past dozen years, or so, Madison lakes have been suffering from blue-green algae blooms, largely due to storm water runoff from homes, commercial properties, roads, and farms. This runoff is loaded with sediment and nutrients, especially phosphorous.  Cyanobacteria blooms can release toxins that are harmful to people and pets.  Already in the spring of 2018 several Madison beaches have been temporarily closed because of cyanobacteria blooms.  If you want to learn more about blue-green algae, click here to view a primer from the Clean Lakes Alliance.

The Madison lakes also suffer from infestations of Zebra mussels, and spiny waterless, invaders that are wreaking havoc with lake ecology.

Chemical Constituents of Fireworks

What chemicals are found in fireworks?  According to the evidence, quire a few contaminates that we don’t want in our air, land, or water.

According to a legal brief filed on behalf of the San Diego, California Water Quality board in 2011 ( )

filed as part of its federal storm water permit application:

typical constituents . . . “include, but are not limited to, aluminum, antimony, barium, carbon, calcium, chlorine, cesium, copper, iron, potassium, lithium, magnesium, oxidizers including nitrates, chlorates and perchlorates, phosphorus, sodium sulfur, strontium, titanium, and zinc. The chemical constituents burn at high temperatures when the firework is detonated which promotes incineration. The chemical constituents within the fireworks are scattered by the burst charge which separates them from the fireworks casing and internal shell components. A firework combustion residue is produced in the form of smoke, airborne particulates, chemical pollutants, and debris including paper, cardboard, wires and fuses. This combustion residue can fall into surface waters. In addition un-ignited pyrotechnic material including duds and misfires can also fall into surface waters. The receiving water fallout area affected by the fireworks residue can vary depending on wind speed and direction, size of the shells, the angle of mortar placement, the type and height of firework explosions and other environmental factors. Once the fireworks residue enters a water body it can be transported to waters and shorelines outside the fallout area due to wind shear and tidal effects.”

The report continues:

“…discharges from the public display of fireworks contain pollutants that have a potential to cause excursions of applicable water and sediment quality objectives.”  In other words public displays of fireworks could cause the municipality to be in violation of its storm water permit.

The concern about the environmental impacts of fireworks is a concern also in New Hampshire where a 2018 report ( that concludes:

“Fireworks contain chemicals that can be harmful to humans and aquatic life. Research suggests that the potential exists for short-term elevated concentrations of these chemicals in surface water, groundwater and the air immediately following larger commercial fireworks displays. At this time, there is no information available about the potential negative impact of consumer-grade fireworks displays on surface waters. However, it is reasonable to expect that a small but unknown amount of contaminants reach the surface water. Best management practices offer solutions to minimize these potential impacts.”



The major concern about fireworks is perchlorate, Perchlorate is an inorganic anion thatis used in solid rocket propellants, fireworks, munitions, signal flares, etc.  Studies have shown that perchlorate is a thyroid disrupter and contaminates the surface and groundwater in the vicinity of fireworks displays. (M. R. Sijimol, Mahesh Mohan, 2014)

Perchlorate is consider such an environmental threat that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a fact sheet about perchlorate (click here for the fact sheet.)


Apparently–despite these known concerns–little consideration was given the potential environmental impacts of fireworks displays on Madison’s lakes to exacerbate or contribute new problems to Madison’s already beleaguered lakes.

The chemical components in fireworks are not harmless and may have long term consequences for human health and environmental quality.

Fireworks displays are exciting and spectacular but this is a short-term thrill with long-term environmental consequences.

Curiously, and significantly–because they are charged with protecting the Madison environment and promoting the common civic good–the  Madison Water Utility and the City of Madison are co-sponsors of “Shake the Lake”, an event that seems at odds with environmental protection.


About Steve Glass

The blogger is a restoration ecologist, Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner (#0093 SER) and writer living in the Midwestern United States.
This entry was posted in Contaminants in fireworks, Contaminates in fireworks, Fireworks displays, Restoration ecology, Water quality in Madison and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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