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How to use fireworks safely — and avoid a trip to the hospital

Posted on Jun. 29, 2018 ( comments)

The Fourth of July can be a fun and meaningful celebration of freedom and independence — but taking too many liberties with fireworks can be risky.

In 2017, there were 345 fireworks-related incidents, including 83 fires and 262 injuries, according to a report prepared by the Washington State Fire Marshal's Office.

Accidents involving fireworks happen most often on the Fourth of July, as well as during the week before and after the holiday. Injuries can range from minor burns to permanent scarring, blindness and amputation.

That's why emergency rooms across the state are urging caution and awareness as we approach the Fourth of July weekend.

Common fireworks-related injuries

Common injury types are burns and trauma-related injuries from being struck by or holding a firework.

"For the most part, burns are the number-one injury we see — including first, second and third-degree — and they usually tend to involve the hands, arms, head or face," says Karrie Austin, Trauma Program Manager at MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital.

"Most burns are relatively minor and will heal after several weeks. Eye and hand injuries are less common, but can be more serious. We have seen finger and hand amputations and even blindness sometimes," she adds.

Firework injuries in children can also occur in areas that are not as obvious, such as the chest and abdomen, says Mauricio A. “Tony” Escobar, MD, Medical Director of Pediatric Surgery and Pediatric Trauma at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital.

“Fireworks may get trapped in clothes, causing initially unrecognized burns and blunt trauma to organs,” he says.

What causes injuries?

The leading causes of fireworks-related injuries often include being hit by fireworks as the result of standing too close and holding fireworks in the hand while igniting them.

Use a long smoldering stick to light a firecracker rather than holding it, and get away from it quickly.

Alcohol appears to be a primary factor in many fireworks injuries, especially the more serious ones, says Austin.

Most dangerous types of fireworks

The types of fireworks that typically cause the most injuries include:

Legal fireworks: Multi-aerials, sparklers and Roman candles

Illegal fireworks: Homemade devices (including sparkler bombs); M-80s, M-100s and cherry bombs; and firecrackers and chasers

Although sparklers aren't typically considered dangerous, they can reach temperatures as high as 2,000 degrees, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

"Children can be burned by sparklers if they move their hand up too much when the sparkler is beginning to burn down, so it's important to supervise them around all fireworks," Austin says.

Sparkler bombs

High-powered, illegal and homemade, sparkler bombs are the most dangerous type of fireworks.

It's a good idea to identify and steer clear of this type of fireworks device. Sparkler bombs can be as powerful as a stick of dynamite, often igniting accidently or prematurely by exposure to heat or friction.

In addition to the loud discharge, they produce shrapnel from sparklers (metal wire), materials used to make the bomb and anything the device destroys by projecting debris. This shrapnel can cause life-altering injuries such as amputations and severe eye injuries.

Fireworks safety tips

  • Never try to make your own fireworks
  • Never attempt to re-light a firework
  • Never hold a lit firework in your hand, or light a firework while holding it
  • Designate an adult to light fireworks
  • Minimize alcohol and drugs around fireworks
  • Always supervise children around fireworks
  • Light one firework at a time and keep at a safe distance
  • Never place any body part directly over a fireworks device
  • If a device doesn’t light or fire, wait five minutes before approaching, then carefully place in a bucket of water (do not re-light)
  • Keep a connected hose or fire extinguisher nearby when lighting fireworks
  • Soak all used fireworks in water before disposing
  • Don’t point fireworks at houses, people, pets, or anything else that can burn
  • Keep pets indoors with doors and windows closed; make sure they have ID tags in case they become frightened and run away

If you or someone you know is injured by fireworks, it's a good idea to seek care sooner rather than later, says Austin.

"Burns can become infected or not stop burning, depending on what's on the skin. For example, oil-based sunscreen or suntan oil can continue to burn," she says.

Minor burns in children can be treated at the Mary Bridge Wound & Ostomy Clinic, staffed by wound-certified ARNPs. Adults with minor burns can be treated at an urgent care clinic.

For more severe burns and other life-threatening injuries, find your nearest emergency room.

Are fireworks legal in my city?

In unincorporated Pierce County, fireworks may be discharged on private property with the permission of the property owner.

For Spokane County, fireworks are legal on private property in Airway Heights, Medical Lake and Deer Park.

Bottle rockets, missiles and firecrackers are illegal anywhere in Washington state.

Fireworks are banned entirely in several area cities — see links below for a full list of fireworks restrictions in our state, or contact your local police or fire department to ask about fireworks regulations.

This article was originally published in June 2016 and updated in June 2018.

Pierce County fireworks regulations and safety

King County fireworks regulations and safety

Fireworks regulations in all Washington counties (PDF)

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