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Vigilance is key to fireworks safety, say emergency doctors

Posted on Jul 3, 2014 ( comments)
Fireworks sign
Fireworks are powerful explosives that account for thousands of emergency room visits every 4th of July.

Fireworks misfire. We handle them mindlessly or irresponsibly. The illegal ones, including homemade devices, well, they're outlawed for a reason.

The point is fireworks, even the familiar, innocuous-looking ones, are dangerous explosives. And when they collide with human flesh — as they invariably do every July 4 — they inflict serious injury.

Recent statistics show fireworks-related injuries rose in Washington state in 2013 over the previous year, prompting hospital doctors to warn against complacency.

“If you're going to set off fireworks then do it safely, because the injuries, if they occur, can be very serious,” said Dr. Ted Walkley, a pediatrics emergency doctor at MultiCare Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Health Center. “You don't want to lose an eye.”

Or a hand, which is the most common body part to get hurt.

“I've seen a lot of hands lost and amputated,” said Dr. Alejandro Stella, who works in the MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital Emergency Department. “When it comes to fireworks, avoid them, or use them as instructed.”

In 2013, hospitals and fire agencies reported 239 fireworks-related injuries in Washington, up from 226 in 212, according to records kept by the Washington State Fire Marshal’s Office.

Unsurprisingly, most of these happened on or about July 4. First-, second-, or third-degree burns accounted for more than half the injuries, usually because people held the firework too long or were too close to it. The state statistics show it was men aged 36 or older who were hurt most often.

Nationwide, hospitals treat at least 8,500 people hurt by fireworks annually, with some 45 percent of them children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Young people aged 15 to 24 are most likely to experience a fireworks injury, followed by children under 10.

AAP is one of the lead agencies in the Alliance to Stop Consumer Fireworks, a group of health and safety organizations that argue the volume and serious nature of these preventable traumas is reason enough to ban the public sale of fireworks.

In Tacoma, fireworks have been banned since 1999, leading to a downturn in related emergency department visits, according Mary Bridge Hospital’s Dr. Walkley.

“It’s nothing like what we used to see before the ban,” he said. “That in itself tells the story.”

Such a cultural change on a national level will take time. Meantime, advocates encourage families to resist obtaining their own fireworks and to attend professional community displays instead, such as Freedom Fair on Ruston Way, Tacoma, or the 4th of July Festival at Les Gove Park, Auburn.

Fireworks Safety Tips

  • Don't buy illegal fireworks
  • Don't make fireworks
  • If you're going to use fireworks, closely supervise children at all times
  • Don't aim fireworks at people or buildings
  • Don’t underestimate sparklers, which can reach temperatures of up to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit

About The Author

susan woodward Susan Woodward
Susan is our Vitals blog editor. She is a former reporter who has written for multiple publications in the U.S. and Australia. You can reach her at susan.woodward@multicare.org.

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