That made-in-America, mom and apple pie feeling to Fourth of July celebrations is increasingly taking on a made-in-China theme. A flood of cheap Chinese fireworks has dominated celebrations in the past 25 years.
From a low-water mark in the days after the 1966-69 Cultural Revolution, when exports of Chinese fireworks dwindled, the industry estimates that China today manufactures 90 percent of the sparklers, pinwheels, Roman candles, smoke bombs and other displays fired off in backyard or municipal Independence Day celebrations.John Conkling, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association in Chestertown, Md., said a combination of the cheaper Chinese imports and U.S. government regulations on American manufacturers has reduced the number of American plants making fireworks.
"The Chinese make very good fireworks, and at a good price. It's a very good combination," Conkling said.
He said that China, which first developed fireworks about 1,000 years ago, also has pyrotechnic universities and research facilities that are unmatched in any other country. By contrast, Conkling said he teaches the only pyrotechnics course in the United States, which is attended by government workers responsible for regulating fireworks safety issues.
The American Pyrotechnics Association estimates 95 percent of the consumer fireworks used in the United States come from China, while about 75 percent of the display fireworks are of Chinese origin. The United States blows up $110 million worth of fireworks each year.
John Rozzi of Rozzi's Famous Fireworks near Cincinnati said fireworks manufacturers come under government regulation from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Department of Transportation, and both state and local fire authorities.
"They all overlap a lot," Rozzi said. "Fireworks have been singled out for some reason for regulations that are tougher than black powder."
Like other American manufacturers, Rozzi's is a family-run concern started by Italian immigrants who handed down the craft from generation to generation. Rozzi, 38, is the fourth generation in his family to be involved in the business.
"It used to be father to son, but there are different technologies now that have changed the craft part of it," he said.
Rozzi said the business aspect of the industry is also changing. Disneyland-like theme parks and corporate sponsors are regularly using fireworks displays for entertainment, providing year-round employment for pyrotechnic businesses.
The basic elements of fireworks, however, have not changed much from the displays Marco Polo saw when he visited China in the 13th century, except the incendiary devices are now packed in cardboard rather than bamboo cases.
Until the 18th century, most fireworks were amber in color from the burning charcoal, but alchemists discovered they could produce other chemicals like strontium salts to produce red displays and barium nitrate to give off a bright green. Chlorine and copper compounds produce a blue.
The industry says the greatest challenge to fireworks comes from the government, which in the 1970s proposed banning fireworks because they were inherently dangerous. After protests from the industry, government regulations sought to ban the most dangerous fireworks, such as cherry bombs and M-80 explosives, some of which contained up to 5 grams of explosive powder, sufficient to cripple and kill.
Ten states ban all consumer fireworks in any form. They are Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.
Only two states - Hawaii and Nevada - have no fireworks laws, leaving it to local jurisdictions to issue regulations if they wish.