Smoke bombs are a type of pyrotechnic device similar to fireworks. They emit a large amount of smoke when it is ignited.
We typically use them for signaling, special effects in movies or theater, or as a part of celebrations.
While they might be a colorful diversion, they contribute to air pollution, have toxic chemicals, and many more issues.
Here, we discuss how they work and whether they are environmentally safe.
1. What Are Smoke Bombs Made Of?
Smoke bombs are made of a mixture of gunpowder, fuel, and sometimes colored dye.
According to historians, the origins of the smoke bomb date back to the 10th century. This began in China around the creation of fireworks and other explosive devices.
It became a part of modern warfare over time, though the exact date is hard to specify. We can say for certain that hand-held smoke grenades were used during world war two and likely since some time before.
Smoke bombs, unlike other forms of warfare, were primarily designed for non-lethal combat, such as for concealment, retreat, and signaling the enemy’s approach.
Nowadays, many use smoke bombs for pranks and festivities. There are several chemical components to these smoke bombs:
- Oxidizer: This is the substance responsible for causing the release of smoke, normally potassium nitrate (the main component of gunpowder).
- Fuel: A material to provide energy release. It is usually sugar or some form of starch.
- Dye: If creating colored smoke, a powdered organic pigment may be used.
- Coolant: This is used to keep the reaction from getting too hot – typically, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) or magnesium.
- Binder: This holds the ingredients together before the reaction begins. For commercial smoke bombs, this might be nitrocellulose or a halogen-free thermoplastic. These materials are highly flammable, allowing the smoke to release when the bomb gets hot.
- Squib: This ignites the bomb. You can think of it as a type of match.
2. Are Smoke Bombs Eco-Friendly?
Not particularly – as we saw above, one of the main components of smoke bombs is potassium nitrate.
As a chemical, potassium nitrate is a naturally occurring mineral produced by bacteria and as crystal deposits in caves.
However, for commercial uses, such as smoke bombs, it is made synthetically by combining potassium chloride with a nitrate such as sodium nitrate or nitric acid.
This process is employed for many commercial uses, such as to make explosives, fertilizer, and food preservatives.
In doing so, these industries emit high levels of greenhouse gases (GHG).
Researchers have estimated that the synthetic nitrate industry is responsible for 10.6% of total agricultural emissions and 2.1% of global GHG emissions.
This is mainly due to a side effect of potassium nitrate’s use. When potassium nitrate is released, a portion of the chemical is absorbed by plants and soil.
While plants can generally absorb nitrogen and potassium, as in the case of fertilizer, the soil is different.
Bacteria in the soil break down its components and release a substance called nitrous oxide.
This is the real problem because nitrous oxide emissions are incredibly damaging to the environment.
They cause acid rain, eutrophication (harmful algae blooms), and many health consequences for humans and animals.
3. Do Smoke Bombs Cause Pollution?
Yes, in many ways, smoke bombs are very similar to fireworks.
They contain the same essential components – an oxidizing agent, a fuel, and a binder.
And like fireworks, they can contribute to air pollution.
The researchers observed several concerning findings:
Smoke bombs generate particulate matter (PM) into the atmosphere, also known as particle pollution.
Particle pollution is a type of air pollution made up of a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air.
This matter can cause health issues such as respiratory illnesses, heart disease, and lung cancer.
In particular, smoke bombs, usually marketed as a safer alternative to fireworks, generate extremely high PM levels.
When a person inhales PM, the lungs have to work harder to expel these particles.
If the particles aren’t expelled, this can cause lung deposition, which is when particles get caught in the respiratory tract.
This is particularly risky to children as they have a smaller lung capacity than adults, meaning they can’t expel harmful matter as well.
The WHO (World Health Organization) warns this puts children at a higher risk of developing severe health conditions.
4. Are Smoke Bombs Toxic?
In addition to the dangers of particulate matter, other toxic chemicals are involved with using smoke bombs.
In testing, smoke bombs were found to emit:
- Trace amounts of arsenic
Of particular concern for toxicity are the heavy metals arsenic and copper. Even in tiny amounts, these elements can cause multiple organ damage.
Research shows exposure to arsenic, especially, can induce toxicity even at low levels of exposure.
Exposure can result in symptoms such as heart issues and neurological effects such as muscle cramping, numbness, and pain.
5. Are Smoke Bombs Harmful to Animals?
Yes, smoke bombs can be harmful to animals.
As discussed, smoke bombs emit toxic chemicals that animals can inhale in the same way as humans.
The smoke can potentially lead to respiratory problems and other health issues.
In addition, the loud noise produced by the explosions can distress animals, leading to anxiety and behavioral changes.
The loud, unnatural sounds disrupt the natural behavior and communication patterns of different species.
As scientists at Anglia Ruskin University explain, the sound of smoke bombs can lead to stress, confusion, and even physical harm.
It can also interfere with reproduction, migration, and hunting.
Additionally, noise pollution can cause animals to abandon their habitats, leading to population declines.