"Every American can remember or recall celebrating with sparklers and fireworks. To want to prohibit these things and not celebrate our pride and patriotism, it's just silly." This is what Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnic Association, told MSN News in 2013.
Certainly fireworks are a long-cherished emblem of patriotism. They're the traditional way to see in the 4th of July, and have been standard since at least 1941 when congress first declared July 4th a national holiday.
July 4th "ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade," President John Adams wrote, "with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other."
In fact, the first association between fireworks and July 4th goes right the way back to July 4th, 1777, when the citizens of Philadelphia rang bells, fired guns, lit candles and set off firecrackers to commemorate 1 year since the meeting of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where the final draft of the Declaration of Independence was first adopted.
With the War of Independence still churning in other territories, July 4th celebrations did not become widespread until at least the time of John Adams presidency (1797-1801). Adams, the second president of the US, wrote to his wife Abigail that he believed Independence Day "will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival."
"It ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade," Adams wrote, "with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other."
Since 2000, US firework laws have become increasingly relaxed
Julie Heckmen's comments to MSN were in response to safety concerns raised over increasing "liberalization" across states of laws concerning the sale of fireworks, leaving just New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Massachusetts as what the American Pyrotechnic Association dub "the Final Four" states to enforce a ban on consumer fireworks.
The relaxation of firework laws across the US began with the millennium celebrations in 2000. The use of fireworks became even more popular on the 4th of July celebrations in 2002, which followed 9/11. In the following years, people increasingly exploited loopholes in fireworks-prohibiting legislation or simply traveled to other states to buy fireworks, and a sluggish economy meant that state and local governments were now actively looking for creative ways to generate revenue.
Between 2011-2012 there was a 10% drop in fireworks-related injuries.
Prohibition of the sale of fireworks to consumers began to seem pointless, and legalization more attractive. Now, fireworks can be sold to consumers in all states bar "the Final Four" and Illinois, Iowa, Ohio and Vermont, which only allow sparklers.
Also, another cause for celebration was a decline in rates of injuries from fireworks between 2000 and 2012. This moved the American Pyrotechnics Association to issue a press release in June 2012 emphasizing a perceived correlation between relaxation of prohibitory regulations and improved safety.
The release claimed that fireworks-related injury in 2012 was 43% lower than it was in 2000, and also cited data from the US Fire Administration's National Fire Incident Reporting System showing that fires related to fireworks had declined by more than 50%, being at the lowest number in 3 decades.
The American Pyrotechnics Association were explicit about what they believe caused the reduction in injuries:
"[...]when the public is permitted to use consumer fireworks, the injuries and fires are reduced because people take the time to plan their fireworks-related activities, thoroughly read the instructions for use, determine a proper area for discharge, and take other measures to ensure spectator safety.
Where the fires and injuries most typically occur is where fireworks are prohibited and people choose to use them anyway and do so in a quick and careless manner to avoid getting caught breaking the law."
Published in 2013, the annual report from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) on injuries and deaths from fireworks found that between 2011-2012 there was a 10% drop in fireworks-related injuries (from 9,600 in 2011 to 8,700 in 2012).
Julie Heckman commented: "I can't think of one other consumer product on the market today that has achieved such record-breaking growth, yet has experienced such a sharp decline in both the number of fires and injuries."
Despite this, however, resistance to loosening of firework laws remains, with petitions such as Repeal the Michigan Fireworks Safety Act of 2011 attracting significant support on moveon.org from concerned citizens.
'The 2013 Fireworks Annual Report'
Now, that position may be vindicated by publication of the CPSC's latest report. The "2013 Fireworks Annual Report" shows a 30% climb in fireworks-related injuries between 2012 and 2013.
In addition, the report recorded eight deaths from fireworks in 2013, and found that:
- Men accounted for 57% of the people injured by fireworks
- The parts of the body most often injured were hands and fingers (36%); head, face and ears (22%); eyes (16%); and legs (14%)
- Burns were the most common fireworks-related injury treated in emergency departments, accounting for 62% of the injuries
- Sparklers were responsible for an estimated 2,300 visits to the emergency department, with 800 visits caused by firecrackers, and 800 by bottle rockets
- Children were the most frequently injured group, with under-15s accounting for 40% of the estimated injuries and under-25s comprising 59% of the injured.
The report also found that the majority of the injuries - 65% - occurred around July 4th, 2013.
"A direct cause for the jump is difficult to determine," CPSC spokesperson Nychelle Fleming told Medical News Today. "However, CPSC is concerned with the 30% increase from last year and will continue to monitor injury reports in the future."
Speaking to The Washington Post, however, the commission's chairman, Bob Adler, said: "What we've seen is an expansion in the ability for members of the public to get access to fireworks, and that's not necessarily a good thing," although he added that he hopes the report's statistics are "just a fluke and an aberration."
MNT asked Julie Heckman whether it is possible the CPSC's most recent figures are beginning to reflect the true legacy of the firework law liberalization trend.
"The slight increase in injuries," she replied, "is not statistically significant."
Heckman claims that because the report does not distinguish between consumer and professional or illegal fireworks, or take into account the rise in use of consumer fireworks, it creates a falsely negative impression of policy change consequences:
"CPSC does not look at or capture the significant increase in consumption. If you look at the volume of product consumed/used the injury rate demonstrates a sharp decline.
And CPSC does not clarify that all the fatalities occurred due to non-consumer fireworks. Over one-third of all fireworks-related injuries in their study are not related to US-regulated consumer fireworks but rather, illegal explosives, homemade fireworks and illegal use of professional display fireworks which require a license for purchase and use, and must be used by trained professionals."
Sparklers and child safety
Perhaps most worrying about the latest figures, though, is the extent to which they reveal children are vulnerable to the dangers of fireworks.
"We advise parents to use caution and never allow children to play with sparklers as they burn at 2,000 degrees, hotter than a blow torch," CPSC's Nychelle Fleming told MNT.
Julie Heckman, whose comment opening this feature linked memories of playing with sparklers with patriotism, argues that children will always be the most injured group, but that this does not validate the argument for repealing the revised fireworks laws.
"Children - due to poor parenting and lack of supervision have always accounted for a high number of the injuries that occur with consumer fireworks and primarily, burns," she told us. "We advocate that young children should never use fireworks. Older children should always have adult supervision.
"Consumer fireworks are safe when used properly," she stresses. "It is rare, extremely rare, for a mishap to occur with consumer fireworks that comply with the stringent requirements of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission and when common sense safety is practiced."
Fears over terrorism
In 2013, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg applied pressure to Governor Andrew Cuomo in an attempt to block a law that would allow sparklers to be sold in the state outside of city limits.
However, Bloomberg's rationale was that blocking the law was not in the interests of child safety as much of fears about potential terrorist applications of fireworks. As evidence, he cited the failed 2010 Times Square bombing, in which fireworks were bought in Pennsylvania by bomber Faisal Shahzad, transported across state lines and fashioned into a bomb-like device.
Children were the most frequently injured group, with under-15s accounting for 40% of the estimated injuries.
Similar fears followed the Boston Marathon bombing, after it was reported that bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev had bought fireworks prior to the bombing.
The American Pyrotechnics Association expressed skepticism that the product whose manufacturers' interests they represent was connected with the bombing, stating: "We believe it is virtually impossible to create the level of destruction and devastation caused in Boston with legitimate consumer fireworks and suspect that the investigation will ultimately point toward other materials being responsible for the creation of the deadly pressure cooker bombs."
In May 2014, it was confirmed that Tsarnaev and his brother Dzhokhar used crushed fireworks for the explosive powder in their bombs.
The use of fireworks in these instances does bring home an uncomfortable truth about the devices; they are not decorations, but explosives.
To make the point more explicit, in previous years when announcing fireworks injuries statistics, the CSPC have blown up watermelons using fireworks to demonstrate the dangers of incorrect use.For this year, the American Pyrotechnics Association predicts a new all-time record, expecting that US sales of consumer fireworks for the first time will exceed $675 million. So if you are buying fireworks this year, be sure to follow the CSPC's safety advice on using these explosives:
- Buy legal fireworks
- Do not let young kids handle or light fireworks, including sparklers
- Always have adults supervise firework activities in the presence of children
- Do not buy fireworks packaged in brown paper - it is a sign they were made for professionals, not consumers
- Keep a bucket of water or a garden hose nearby, just in case
- Do not try to relight malfunctioning fireworks
- Douse the used fireworks in water before disposing in the trash.