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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Light Up Dubai: is Burj Khalifa's record-breaking laser show better for the environment than fireworks?

As the Burj Khalifa's New Year show draws to a close this Saturday, we look at whether the awe-inpiring spectacular poses any risk to health or the environment 

Light up 2018 sees an area of more than 100,000 square metres lit up in a world record-breaking light show. Emaar Properties
Light up 2018 sees an area of more than 100,000 square metres lit up in a world record-breaking light show. Emaar Properties

This Saturday, the Burj Khalifa's Light Up Dubai laser show will finally flash and shimmer its last. After three months, and currently running a tribute to Adele's 2012 hit Skyfall, which she wrote for the James Bond movie of the same name, this weekend will see the end of the record-breaking show. For now at least.

Light up 2018 saw an area of more than 100,000 square metres burst into light starting on December 31 last year to welcome in the New Year. It attracted thousands of spectators, and has since been repeated between five and seven nights a week.

The Burj Khalifa is no stranger to superlatives, so it was more than appropriate that the laser extravaganza that welcomed in 2018 earned a world record for the largest light and sound show on a single structure.

While the Burj Khalifa is used to breaking records, holding a laser light and sound show was a departure from the norm – the world’s tallest building previously held a yearly New Year spectacular featuring fireworks.

But what does holding a laser show mean when it comes to considerations such as health and the environment?

The usual New Year celebration on fireworks can pose a greater risk. A key factor is pollution, because airborne particulate matter (PM) produced by fireworks can trigger problems for people with existing respiratory conditions such as asthma.

Indeed, concerns over pollution from fireworks are so great that several years ago in the San Joaquin Valley, California, authorities offered upto US$10,000 (Dh36,700) to towns to scrap fireworks on the Fourth of July in favour of a laser light show.

Dr Bassam Mahboub, head of the Emirates Allergy and Respiratory Society, said “absolutely” that a laser light show was better than fireworks, both in terms of health and public safety.

“[Fireworks] aggravate symptoms for people who have chronic respiratory conditions: asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and lung disease,” he said.

Research indicates that fireworks increase, albeit temporarily, the concentration of PM in the air.

Dr Mahboub, who is assistant dean of the College of Medicine at the University of Sharjah, said these higher levels could make people more likely to develop respiratory illnesses and said excessive exposure to fireworks “should be avoided”.

Published research ties in with this view. A 2012 study found that New Year fireworks in Honolulu, Hawaii, caused PM concentrations in the air to jump 300 per cent. Published in the journal Public Health Reports, the research also warned of the release of hazardous metals that persist in the environment.

“Short-term exposure to very high levels of PM during fireworks episodes have caused asthma problems and other respiratory ailments in Hawaii and elsewhere,” the study said.

The research noted that short- and long-term exposure to particulates with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5) is linked to greater mortality from cardiovascular problems and lung cancer.

The study’s first author, Dr Jocelyn Licudine, said by telephone that there was a clear jump in the level of PM after fireworks were let off.

“There’s a sudden peak and the people are exposed to it. We don’t know now [but] it could be a long-term effect. These may not be causing any trouble now, but these pollutants, carcinogens, could be accumulating in the system,” said Dr Licudine, a scientist in the air quality monitoring section of the Hawaii State Department of Health.

“There’s no definite proof. We should be proactive ahead of what could possibly happen in the future.”

A study at a Shanghai university reported by Chinese media found that PM2.5 levels went up to 1,230 microgrammes per cubic metre after three firecrackers were burst; World Health Organisation guidelines say the safe 24-hour average is 25 microgrammes.

As a result of concerns, tougher regulations on fireworks were imposed by a number of Chinese cities in 2016.

While the switch to a laser light show eliminates pollution, it does require large amounts of electricity. Perhaps more significantly, it also has potentially disruptive effects due to bright lights and loud noise on wildlife and pets.

Jon Sadler, a professor of biogeography at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom who has published research on the effect of light pollution on animals, said effects from the likes of fireworks were temporary.

“You’re trading a short-term disturbance against what we know causes issues with animals in the long term – sound pollution, which is persistent and chronic,” he said.

“My hunch is they bunker down, move away and, when it’s gone, they come back or when it’s gone they move.

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“Large scale fireworks may cause stress, but it’s unlikely to cause long-term population effects because it’s not persistent enough. It certainly does cause stress – that’s pretty clear when you watch your own pet.”

He said birds might be discouraged from nesting or roosting on a building covered in bright flashing lights and could abandon the building. But because it was a short-term effect, he thought there would be “no information” in the scientific literature on the subject as testing it would be very difficult.

Persistent light pollution from buildings and other light sources was, he said, a greater concern than fireworks or laser shows.

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