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Consumer Fireworks: Are They Really "Safe and Sane?"

The consumer fireworks industry wants the American public to believe their products are safer than ever. Fireworks manufacturers say that the number of people injured by consumer fireworks has been significantly reduced since 1976, but this statistic is for the number of documented injuries and doesn't include injured individuals who chose not to document or seek medical attention.

The Statistics

In a 2013 report on fireworks, the NFPA reported that "89% of the fireworks injuries treated in hospital emergency rooms involved fireworks that Federal regulations permit consumers to use" (Hall, 2013). In 2011, fireworks were directly involved in 17,800 reported fires, resulting in direct damage estimated at $32 million dollars; this includes 1,200 structural fires, 400 vehicle fires and 16,300 outside and other fires.

However, the latest report (PDF) from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in 2012 stated six firework-related deaths, up from the two deaths reported in 2008, were from illegal or homemade fireworks.

In addition, the NFPA estimated that 9,600 injuries were reported emergency room-treated injuries. This is nothing for the consumer firework community to brag about as it continues to tout consumer pyrotechnics to be "safe and sane."

One statistic that rarely changes over the years is that children and young adults suffer a large share of the injuries reported. In 2012, CPSC stated that 44% of the reported injuries from consumer pyrotechnics were children under the age of 19. Adults 20 to 65 years of age accounted for 55% of reported injuries by consumer pyrotechnics, with 39% of those reported injuries identified in the 20-to-24 and 25-to-44 age groups.

Whether these segments step barefoot on a spent superheated sparkler, which burns at temperatures of about 2,000 degrees, or feel the active sparks biting on their forearm, it's a burn injury. So much for "safe and sane."

How many people are injured or burned but never called 911 or visited an emergency room for medical treatment? Their injuries won't be included in the official reports. Perhaps we should ask local drug stores if they see an unusual increase in the quantity of burn-relief ointments, ice packs or other possible over-the-counter burn treatments sold on or around July 4th.

Smoke-and-Mirrors Fireworks Marketing

The consumer pyrotechnic industry markets consumer fireworks with such phrases as "safe and sane" or "backyard fireworks," but we in the fire and emergency service witness the true situation, and we must publicize it over and over, each and every year.

Each year, fire code officials and consumer safety organizations continue to ask, "How can a pyrotechnic item sold as a consumer product that emits flames or showers of sparks, at temperatures up to 1300°F, be safe and sane?"

Look at the reported injuries each year from these "safe and sane" products and one may jump to a quick conclusion that this is smoke-and-mirrors marketing. Mind you that these statistics are just the reported injuries. No one can quantify the actual numbers of those injured, but we can venture an estimate of up to 25% above reported injuries.

There is something very wrong when some in the pyrotechnic industry will sell to amateurs products that will emit potentially chemical-grade explosive or deflagrating, high-heat materials that when ignited will create enough heat to melt glass and aluminum and may maim a person for life.

When firework vendors sell their sparklers and "safe and sane" products to the public, there's no follow up between the vendor and customer. In other words, there's little or no training on the material. I heard one vendor recently state that it's "Buyer Beware!"

Communicating Safety Concerns Truthfully and Accurately

Some within the consumer firework industry continue to state that more children are injured each year on bicycles than by fireworks. However, bicycle accidents occur 365 days a year; fireworks injuries are calculated for a three-day period on and around the July 4th holiday.

To the fire service, fire marshals, police officers, paramedics, nurses and doctors—all those who see what this superheated, unpredictable consumer product can do to the human skin and extremities—it's absurd to call consumer fireworks "safe and sane."

Most people assume that the average firework will act like the last one ignited. They may get closer to a firework while it's lit, thinking the volume and distance of sparks or showers will be the same as the last one. This false sense of safety is what first responders and ER staff often hear from consumers when they're burned by an unpredictable firework display. They're basically operating on their own, at risk and "buyer beware."

Consumers who buy sparklers, firecrackers, mortars up to one-inch rapports and multishot finales need to be informed that no one pyrotechnic item acts like another.

July 4th and New Year's Eve are times of celebration and often involve the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Mixing dangerous consumer fireworks with drinking is a lethal combination that just adds to the overall problem. Standard public-safety message around July 4th and New Year's Eve events must include information about the potentially lethal effects of igniting fireworks under the effects of alcohol.

As your community celebrates holidays and its own significant historic milestones, encourage your folks to grab a blanket and comfortable folding chairs and to view a community-funded professional fireworks display. Professional pyrotechnicians must adhere to strict laws and standards, such as those set forth in NFPA 1123 and 1126. Laws, codes and standards ensure pyrotechnicians are sober, well trained, adequately credentialed and insured. Additionally, local fire officials are present to ensure public-assembly areas are protected from hazards through compliance with prescribed safe-fallout distances.

It's also important to remind the public that they must not bring consumer fireworks as a sideshow to a professional display. Urge them to leave them at home or be prepared to surrender them to a local law enforcement officer or fire marshal as outlined in your jurisdictional laws.

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