The Medical Minute: Celebrate safely by avoiding fireworks injuries

July 02, 2003

By John Messmer, M.D.
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

The Fourth of July and fireworks go together like Thanksgiving and turkey. Children and adults alike marvel at professional shows and many enjoy the chance to have a little of the fun at home. In the excitement, it is 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.

In Pennsylvania the law limits the amount of gunpowder used in fireworks for general consumers. One at a time, these explosions are enough to hurt, but several at once can be quite dangerous. 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.

Last year, 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 but are still risks involved in the use of fireworks.

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

For home use:

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

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 gets 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 and light only one at a time then get away. Do not try to re-light one that didn't work -- it may explode while your hand is close to it.

Never carry fireworks in your pockets, 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.

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 19, 2009