Happy New Year!

Fireworks Exploding over Reykjavík

Last night the usual New Year’s Eve traditions were carried out as they have been for many years in Iceland: families came together for a holiday dinner, visited neighbourhood bonfires, watched the yearly Áramótaskaup comedy revue, and set off fireworks to ring in 2024 with a bang.

Wherever you are, dear reader, the Iceland Review team hopes you found comfort in some familiar traditions and are looking forward to 2024. We certainly look forward to bringing you the best of Icelandic culture, nature, and community in the coming year. To all our readers and their loved ones: Happy New Year, Gleðilegt ár and thanks for reading!

The Icelandic Medical Journal Publishes Report on Fireworks-Related Injuries

New Year's Eve Fireworks in Reykjavík, 2017.

Using data gathered between 2010 and 2022, the Medical Journal of Iceland has released a report on fireworks-related injuries in Iceland.

The study searched through medical records between these years for reports of fireworks and information related to the circumstances and severity of the injuries.

In total, some 248 people were sent to the hospital during this time for fireworks-related injuries, ranging in age from only 9 months old to 79 years old.

See also: No Smoke Without Fireworks

A large proportion of injuries, 39%, were also found to have been caused by faulty fireworks. Rockets were found to be the most dangerous, accounting for 23% of all injuries, followed by multishot box fireworks, which accounted for 17% of all injuries.

Injuries to hands and eyes were most common, and across the period of the study, individuals were hospitalized for a combined total of 91 days due to their injuries.

The report concludes that “firework accidents are a significant problem in Iceland.” An average of 21 Icelanders end up in the emergency room every year due to fireworks-related accidents. The large majority of these accidents occur on New Year’s Eve and the first hours of the New Year.

Fireworks-related accidents also, perhaps unsurprisingly, show a strong gender bias, with some three out of four affected individuals being male. However, a more serious trend is the number of children affected, with just less than half of all injuries coming from minors. One preschool-aged child, on average, each year ends up in the emergency room, generally due to a lack of supervision.

Over the course of the entire study, most injuries were found to be relatively minor cuts and burns, but at least 13 people were identified as having suffered serious injuries. The study suggests an increased emphasis on the correct handling of fireworks, especially the use of safety glasses.

Given the relatively high frequency of fireworks-related injuries, the study also suggests “considering further restrictions on their import, sale, and use.”

The report can be read in its entirety here.

Search-And-Rescue Teams Sold Fireworks For 800 Million ISK This Year

New Year's Eve Fireworks in Reykjavík, 2017.

The Search-and-rescue teams income from firework sales this New Year’s celebrations amount to about 800 million ISK ($6,284,368, €5,133,470), about 10-15% increase since last year, RÚV reports. The director of The Icelandic Association For Search And Rescue Þór Þorsteinsson says it would be irresponsible of authorities to cut this funding source, without making it up in some other way.

Fireworks have come under fire in the past few years for the amount of noise and air pollution they create. 

Last night was January 6, Twelfth night, the end of legal fireworks sales, which can only be sold from December 28-January 6. ICE-SAR representatives are happy with sales this year. “In total, it seems to have gone very well. There’s been a decline in sales for the past two or three years but now there seems to have been a 10-15% increase. So the Search-and-rescue teams’ net revenue from fireworks sales this year could be around 800 million,” stated Þór.

A significant amount of pollution was recorded in the capital area this New Ears’ Eve as the weather was still. “Yes, we are aware that fireworks cause pollution, as with so many other things, said Þór. “But we were even expecting there to be more pollution than there turned out to be and one possible explanation is that there were no bonfires this New Year’s Eve. They pollute as well.”

Authorities intend to change the way fireworks are sold, to lessen the negative effects on the public’s health and air quality due to air pollution. A workgroup has suggested that the period of legal fireworks sales be shortened by a few days and that larger fireworks will only be permitted on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s day and Twelfth Night. The changes were postponed due to the pandemic but the Ministry of Justice is yet to confirm that the rules will be changed in time for next year.

“We aren’t advocating for fireworks sales per se, but we do need the revenue and we are a pretty large part of the nation’s emergency response. And we do think it’s irresponsible to make suggestions to cut fireworks sales, our way of funding our operations unless there’s something to replace it,” stated Þór.

Low Air Quality Expected on New Year’s Day in Reykjavík

fireworks new year's eve Reykjavík

Wind speeds will be very low in most places on New Year’s Day, meaning that pollution from fireworks will linger and air quality will be low in areas where many fireworks are set off, the Icelandic Met Office reports.

Firework sales are the main source of fundraising for Iceland’s volunteer-run Search and Rescue organisations. Setting them off on New Year’s Eve is an Icelandic tradition, but has become a subject of debate in recent years due to its polluting effects.

Read More: No Smoke Without Fireworks

Besides buying fireworks, those who wish to support ICE-SAR can purchase seedlings to be planted in Iceland or simply donate directly to the organisation.

Reykjavík Public Health Office Suggests Restrictions On Fireworks

The Reykjavík Public health Office considers it desirable that sale of large fireworks to the public is restricted and that such fireworks should only be used in official fireworks displays requiring official permits. While the Ministry of Justice has recently suggested limiting sales and use of fireworks to only a few days around New Year’s Eve, the Public Health Office calls it an anachronism to create an unhealthy situation for shortlived entertainment.

The Minister of Justice has published a draft for regulations suggesting that the sales period of fireworks is shortened and that the public would only be allowed to set off fireworks for a period of three days.

Read more: Should Iceland Restrict the Public’s Access to Fireworks?

The Reykjavík Public Health Office stated in its comment that these restrictions will be hard to enforce. Experience shows that the use of fireworks happens outside the current permissible period, both in the days before and after New Year’s Eve but also in other times of the year. The Public Health Office believes the regulations should be stricter, giving municipalities the option to ban the use of firework in their area.

The public health office says it’s unacceptable to create unhealthy conditions in an urban area with the public’s unrestricted use of fireworks. The worst cases, there can be enough pollution to rival a natural disaster. The office also considers it desirable to ban the sale of large fireworks to the public and that there could even be limits to how many fireworks one individual can purchase. It’s an “anachronism to recreationally create situations that are bad for public health.”

The Reykjavík Public Health Office’s review was presented at a meeting with the Reykjavík Committee of Environment and Health. The meeting’s minutes included a formal entry from the committee’s majority that they agreed wholeheartedly with the Public Health Office’s stance. It was sad that this chance hadn’t been used to make more effective and more radical changes, such as banning particularly dangerous fireworks or setting a limit to individual fireworks’ purchases. Shortlived entertainment couldn’t justify that people’s environment and health were put in danger.

The committee’s independence party and centre party members, on the other hand, didn’t consider it within the city’s jurisdiction to decide which fireworks could or could not be sold. They also disagreed with that limits should be placed on how much fireworks each individual could purchase or how many fireworks would be imported.

In Iceland, New Year’s Eve is traditionally celebrated with a bonfire and fireworks. In recent years, there have been increased concerns over the safety of these celebrations, especially in densely populated urban areas.

Four Thousand Seedlings Planted in ‘New Year’s Forest’

Members of ICE-SAR and the Icelandic Forestry Association planted 4,000 tree seedlings on Wednesday as part of the Áramótaskógur (‘New Year’s Forest’) on Selfjall mountain just outside of Kópavogur in the capital area, RÚV reports.

Slysavarnafélagið Landsbjörg, Facebook

The seedlings were sold as part of annual fundraising efforts for ICE-SAR, Iceland’s volunteer-staffed search and rescue association. Traditionally, ICE-SAR has sold New Year’s fireworks to raise money for its efforts. However, concerns about the environmental impact of Iceland’s New Year’s fireworks extravaganza have led, in recent years, to New Year’s seedlings being sold as well. ICE-SAR currently has a contract in place with the forestry association to sell New Year’s seedlings through 2023.

Read More: Tree Seedlings to Supplement Firework Sales Over Next 3 Years

Eight thousand seedlings were sold as part of the most recent New Year’s fundraiser and will be planted all over the country.

New Restrictions on Fireworks Proposed

A ministerial committee appointed to review the negative impacts of pollution from fireworks has issued recommendations which would significantly curtail fireworks usage, RÚV reports. A joint statement issued by the committee emphasised the importance of taking practical measures to improve public health while also ensuring that Iceland’s Search and Rescue organisations remain well-funded (ICE-SAR currently earns half its annual revenue from the sale of fireworks).

Per the proposed regulations, it would only be permissible to set off fireworks in Iceland during the following windows: 4.00pm on New Year’s Eve to 2.00am on New Year’s Day; 4.00pm to 10.00pm on New Year’s Day; 4.00pm to 10.00pm on January 6th (Þrettándinn, otherwise known as Epiphany, or the last day of Christmas). Current law allows for the sale and use of fireworks from December 28 until January 6, during which time they are not permitted to be set off between midnight and 9.00am, except on New Year’s Eve.

The new recommendations would also allow for Þrettándinn celebrations to be postponed in the event of windy weather or heavy frost, although postponements beyond the following Sunday would not be allowed. Municipalities could also elect to hold Þrettándinn celebrations on Saturday or Sunday during the first week of January.

In total, the committee made seven recommendations on curtailing the use of fireworks:

  • Short-term measures put in place by local health committees related to fireworks pollution
  • Licences and supervision for fireworks displays
  • A more restrictive timeframe during which the use of fireworks is permitted
  • Fewer days on which fireworks are sold
  • Increased supervision and oversight on fireworks use
  • Penalties and fines related to misuse of fireworks
  • The appointment of a working group to discuss a new financing model for ICE-SAR rescue teams

Representatives of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources on the committee additionally proposed that public use of larger fireworks and firework “cakes” should be discontinued by 2030. They also proposed that people should only be allowed to set off fireworks in designated areas. The representative from the Ministry of Justice proposed more detailed measurements be taken on fireworks-generated pollution, via an increase in the number of pollution-measuring stations, an analysis of where pollution originates, and a ban imposed on the importation of bottle rockets.

Tree Seedlings to Supplement Firework Sales Over Next 3 Years

Fireworks Exploding over Reykjavík

ICE-SAR will continue to sell tree seedlings at its fireworks outlets according to a new agreement with the Icelandic Forestry Association, RÚV reports. The contract expires in 2023.

Extravagant Pyrotechnics

As environmental issues have moved to the fore of the national consciousness, Iceland’s longstanding fireworks tradition has come under scrutiny lately. Most of the fireworks ignited in Iceland are imported from China, translating into a sizeable carbon footprint. Fireworks also produce smoke and dust, which besides causing lung damage, also contain various heavy metals and harmful chemicals. Residents of Iceland have ignited some 600 tonnes’ worth of fireworks annually since 2005. Many have called for moderation.

Such appeals are problematic, given that the sale of fireworks is the largest source of income for the Icelandic Association of Search and Rescue (ICE-SAR). According to some estimates, ICE-SAR enjoys a 75% share of the fireworks market in Iceland, which, in turn, accounts for about one-third of the association’s total funding (although it may account for up to 90% of the financing of individual rescue teams in rural Iceland). ICE-SAR handles approximately 1,200 emergency calls annually.

Money Growing on Trees

Last year, in response to growing environmental concerns, ICE-SAR began supplementing its sale of fireworks by offering tree seedlings – under the heading Skjótum rótum (Put Down Roots) – at its outlets. Buyers do not receive the seedlings. Instead, the Icelandic Forestry Association, in partnership with other forestry associations (there are ca. 60 forestry associations in Iceland), plant them on their behalf. ICE-SAR sold approximately 13,000 seedlings last year.

This year, ICE-SAR and the Icelandic Forestry Association hope to expand the number of forestry associations participating in the project, aiming to spread the programme to more parts of the country. The proceeds from the sale of seedlings will go directly to ICE-SAR. The seedlings will be sold around the country until New Year’s.

Pollution a Genuine Concern

According to a report introduced by the Environment Agency of Iceland this week, the Greater Reykjavík Area saw a significant increase in suspended particulate matter on New Year’s Eve last year. Measuring stations in the Greater Reykajvík Area recorded sixteen different types of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and seventeen chemical elements.

“The Environment Agency of Iceland encourages everyone to exercise moderation in their use of fireworks. We emphasise that pollution from fireworks is a genuine concern in Iceland, with suspended particulate matter accounting for the most adverse health effects. The Agency would also like to point out that the pollution harms those who experience it, especially those who are vulnerable, like children, the elderly, or the infirm. Suspended particulate matter not only causes discomfort but also reduces the quality of life for many.”

ICE-SAR Earns Over Half of Annual Revenue from Fireworks

Reykjavík Fireworks New Year's Eve

ICE-SAR earned around ISK 800 million ($6.8m/€6m), or up to 60% of its total annual revenue from New Year’s firework sales in 2017 and 2016, RÚV reports. ICE-SAR chairman Smári Sigurðsson says that this year’s fireworks sales figures are not yet available, and may indeed be somewhat lower than previous years, but it’s possible that sales from this year’s new seedlings initiative will make up for any drop-off in firework sales. Smári predicts that this year’s fundraiser will yield somewhere between ISK 700 and 800 million ($5.9-6.8m/€5.5-6m).

Figures for this year’s sales are not yet available as they will continue through January 6, or Þrettándinn, which marks the 13th and last day of Christmas in Iceland. Bonfires are held throughout the country and many people save their holiday fireworks for this day, which is the last legal day to set them off until the next Christmas season. The bonfires and fireworks are, metaphorically speaking, intended to “burn up Christmas” and mark the end of the festive season.

There’s been increasing concern over the pollution caused by the annual fireworks extravaganza in Iceland, and the resulting difficulties experienced, for instance, by people with respiratory problems. As such, the idea of selling seedlings to be planted in a grove outside Þorlákshöfn next summer had been “well-received,” said Smári, and ICE-SAR intends to continue the seedling sale next year and “…develop this partnership with the Icelandic Forest Service further.”

ICE-SAR is entirely funded by donations; it receives no government support. As such, the annual end-of-year fundraiser is particularly important to the organisation’s success for the rest of the year. However, that doesn’t mean that the organisation is dead-set on the continued sale of fireworks specifically.

“We’re not defending fireworks, per se, but we but we want to spend the profits on the work that needs to be done.”