The Medical Minute: Fireworks - celebrate safely

June 30, 2004

By John Messmer
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

The Fourth of July and fireworks go together like Thanksgiving and turkey. Professional fireworks shows are exciting and children and adults may want to take a little of the fun home. In the excitement, it's easy to forget that sparklers are very hot -- 2000 degrees -- hot enough to ignite clothing or cause a third-degree burn ... the worst kind. Firecrackers are little explosions; like other explosions they can tear skin and shoot debris into eyes.

The Consumer Products Safety Commission under the Hazardous Substances Act has limited the explosive power of fireworks available to consumers. One at a time, these explosions are enough to hurt, but several at once can be quite dangerous. Many states have even stricter regulations. Pennsylvania law limits consumers to sparklers and similar devices. In places where rockets and roman candles are available to consumers, a stray rocket or fireball can ignite clothing, brush and other fireworks in a chain reaction.

In 2002, emergency rooms reported almost 9,000 fireworks injuries nationwide. Although this is only about 0.01 percent of all accidental injuries for the year, most of them happen on or around July Fourth. Firecrackers account for a third of the injuries and rockets about 15 percent. Only about 3 percent of injuries happen at public displays. Fortunately injuries from fireworks are less common today because of safer design and better consumer awareness of safety issues.

Here are some safety tips to help you enjoy the fireworks safely:

For home use:

-- Stick to legal fireworks to minimize injury and avoid legal problems. Buying from a reliable source is safer. Read and follow directions carefully and use them outdoors only.

-- A responsible adult should be in charge. Alcohol, even small amounts, can impair judgment. Don't mix drinking with fireworks use.

-- Young children may take risks or be unaware of the dangers involved in using pyrotechnics, so never let them play with fireworks or sparklers. Keep other people well out of range in case fireworks get away. Never point or throw fireworks at anyone.

-- Keep fireworks and sparklers away from burnable material including dry grass and brush. Light them only on nonflammable surfaces. Light only one at a time and then get away. Do not try to re-light one that didn't work, because it may explode while your hand is close to it.

-- Never carry fireworks in your pockets or put them inside containers. Don't try to shoot them out of things.

-- Always have a bucket of water or garden hose nearby in case of fire. Consider dropping burned sparklers into water to prevent burns from the metal rod, which remains hot for a while.

Do not combine fireworks, sparklers or other devices. The added explosive power can increase damage in an accident.

At public displays:

-- Stay behind barricades -- they're for your safety. In the unusual event that a rocket or part of one falls to the ground unexploded, do not get near it. Notify the police or fire department for proper disposal.

-- Finally, pets are much more sensitive to noise than we are and the explosions can be very uncomfortable and frightening -- particularly to dogs -- so it's best to leave them at home.

For more information on fireworks safety, visit

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Last Updated March 20, 2009