Fireworks: Not Worth the Risk
By Jimmy Parks, MS, RN
Cruising along I-40 wearing a seatbelt and surrounded by airbags set to pop in an instant, I pass “Crazy Bob’s Fireworks Bazaar!” (not my exclamation point). It’s a few weeks before the 4th of July and kids are leading their parents toward “Bob’s” huge circus tent as if they were going to get to pet puppies and eat ice cream. Greeting everyone as they enter is a 30- foot-tall, inflatable Uncle Sam (or maybe that’s Crazy Bob in disguise) who is half full of hot air and dancing out of step to carnival music blaring from the entrance. Boy, that looks fun!
Have you ever driven by a place like that with kids in the car? If you’re like me, you will drive miles out of the way to avoid the discussion/argument about why we are not going to go there even though everyone else is and even though the people going in there don’t look evil or otherwise abnormal.
AN AMERICAN TRADITION
The fact is that people who shoot fireworks are not abnormal. Some surveys show as many as 75% of parents let their kids play with fireworks. If we stand back and look at it without emotion, those people are just doing something fun that their parents (and probably their grandparents) did—perhaps with no more than a little blister here and there.
PLAYING THE ODDS
In fact, when people play with fireworks, the odds are they will not get hurt, but is it worth the risk?
What is the most important part of your body— your hands, face, eyes? That’s where fireworks do the most harm. In fact, according to the National Fire Protection Association, in 2007:
- Thirty percent of fireworks injuries are to hands or fingers. (Children are especially vulnerable to permanent loss since their fingers and hands are so small.)
- Twenty-four percent of fireworks injuries are to the eyes. [According to the American Society of Ocular Trauma (ASOT) (eye injury experts), each year as many as 400 Americans lose vision permanently in one or both eyes due to injuries caused by fireworks and more than half of all fireworks-related eye injuries occur on the Fourth of July.]
- Twenty percent of fireworks injuries are to the face or other parts of the head.
In addition to personal injury, more than 2,000 building and vehicle fires are caused directly by fireworks every July 4th alone—more than any other day of the year.
SIZE DOESN’T MATTER
While you may recognize that large fireworks are dangerous, contrary to what you may believe, small fireworks, such as firecrackers, bottle rockets, and sparklers, are not safer. In fact, they account for almost 75% of all fireworks-related injuries (NFPA 2007).
As with all things, it’s about how they are used. People tend to underestimate the power of the smaller explosives. They seem harmless. However, sparklers get hotter than 1200 degrees Fahrenheit and are the most likely to cause injuries to young children, while bottle rockets are the type of firecracker that most often cause eye damage. These missiles are reckless enough to cause injuries even when pointed away from everyone.
It’s also about how often they are used. Bottle rockets and small firecrackers are the most common types of fire “toys” used for holiday mayhem. These smaller fireworks are more popular because they are cheaper. Many people buy them by the gross. As we interview children in our fire education program, we consider one deliberately set fire a concern. Multiply that by 144 and you’re really asking for trouble.
ONLY ONCE A YEAR
Some people consider the 4th a special occasion. “After all,” they may say, “we’re only letting the kids play with fire once a year.” However, there are a few problems with that way of thinking:
- Depending on the age of the children, it can be pretty hard for them to understand that playing with fire is okay on one or two days of the year, but not any other day.
- Older kids (the tweens and teens) will try and push the limits. Shooting bottle rockets may be fun at first, but when that gets old and no one gets hurt; they may move on to, “Let’s shoot them at the street light.” When that gets old and no one gets hurt, it can become, “Let’s shoot them at each other.” Eventually even that gets old, so the next stunt becomes, “Let’s tie a bunch of them together and stick them in a container that will become shrapnel and throw it.”
Unfortunately, adolescents tend to graduate with their fire play just like they do with other rule-bending behavior. They often keep pushing it until an adult steps in, they run out of ammunition, there’s a real close call, or someone does get hurt.
WEIGHING THE RISK
Choosing to accept the risks and play the odds for yourself as an adult is one thing. Choosing to expose children to the risks seems to be a little different. Children are the most vulnerable to injury because of their size and proximity to the source. They are at increased risk because they don’t understand what they’re dealing with. With so many years ahead of them, they also have the most to lose.
BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY
So rather than worrying about eventually having to impose limits for what you may think is acceptable behavior with fireworks, consider avoiding fireworks altogether, before your children are old enough to think that playing with fireworks is a civil right guaranteed by the Constitution.
After 17 years in the Burn Center, it’s an easy decision for me. Fireworks are not worth the risk. That doesn’t mean I’m a fireworks hater. I know people who love them and they’re not bad folks. For them, it’s worth it, I suppose. I just hope they truly understand the risk so they can make an informed decision.
Sadly, nothing is without a price. Improving my safety means I will not get to see multi-colored bombs bursting in air. As fascinating as that sounds, I will be okay without it.
If you’re still convinced that our founding fathers would be offended if you didn’t include fireworks in your holiday celebration, reduce your risk by following these tips from the NFPA:
- Attend only public fireworks displays put on by trained professionals
- Stay back at least 500 feet from the display.
- Do not pick up fireworks that may be left over after these displays. Fireworks that have been ignited but failed to immediately explode or discharge may still be active.
For those of you who agree that George Washington would probably be cool with you skipping the fireworks, consider starting a new family tradition. Go to a baseball game (professionals will likely have a fireworks display there anyway), go to a movie, or decorate an independence tree. I’m hopeful that we will someday have spark-free holidays like we have smoke-free restaurants.
SPREAD THE WORD
If you want to help others, consider joining The Alliance to Stop Consumer Fireworks—advocates for keeping fireworks out of the hands of children. This group of 22 health and safety organizations, coordinated by NFPA, urges the public to avoid the use of any form of consumer fireworks and instead, to enjoy displays of fireworks conducted by trained professionals.
GET THE FACTS
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is my favorite source for real facts and stats about fire and fireworks. I’ve used a lot of their data for this article—apologies if I didn’t note each occasion. For those of you who want to read a little more or find information with which to teach a class, go to their website, http://www.nfpa.org.