Fireworks are legal in almost every state, and a new law in Pennsylvania makes them easier than ever to buy. Here's why that worries doctors.
Philadelphia resident Rasaan Urquhart has a message for anyone looking to celebrate Independence Day with some pyrotechnic pizazz: Enjoy those fireworks from a distance. The 25-year-old went blind in one eye after a firework exploded in his face earlier this year—an injury that’s sidelined his position as a firefighter and affected his role as a father.
Urquhart says he was attending a neighborhood victory celebration after the Eagles’ Super Bowl win back in February. “Suddenly, someone started lighting fireworks nearby and couldn’t get one started,” he said in a press release from Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia. He went over to lend a hand—but as he got close, the pyrotechnic ignited, hitting him in the face.
“I didn’t feel anything at first, but then all I saw was blood,” he said. “It was a shocker. Right then and there, I knew I was going to be blind right away. I felt a heat sensation like my face was blown off.”
Urquhart lost all vision in his left eye, and he still struggles with blurriness in his right eye, as well. He’s doing better today, but the injury has had lasting consequences. “Knowing that I have two young children—I was scared I was going to jeopardize what I could do with my kids,” he said in the press release. He has also not been able to return to duty as a volunteer at his local firehouse.
Ahead of the July 4th holiday, Urquhart wants to warn others who might be considering attending or setting off their own amateur fireworks displays. “Go out and have fun, but be safe when it comes to fireworks,” he said. “Think about what you’re doing—before you do it.”
Ophthalmologist Ann P. Murchison, MD, MPH, director of the Wills Eye Emergency Department where Urquhart was treated, echoes that warning. “The public needs to be aware that consumer-bought fireworks can cause very serious injuries,” Dr. Murchison said in the hospital's statement.
“When these devices are burning at around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, store-bought fireworks—including those innocent-looking sparklers—can quickly have harmful consequences for your eyesight and cause life-changing injuries,” she added.
According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, consumer fireworks are legal, in some form, in 49 states and the District of Columbia. Three states—Illinois, Ohio, and Vermont—allow only wire or wood stick sprinklers and other novelty items, while only one state, Massachusetts, has banned all forms of consumer fireworks.
Urquhart’s story is especially relevant in his hometown of Philadelphia, since a law revised in October 2017 expanded access to purchasing certain explosives in Pennsylvania. Consumers can now buy and use “consumer-grade” fireworks including firecrackers, Roman candles, and bottle rockets, which were previously only available to out-of-state residents.
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Despite their legality in most states, about 10,000 fireworks-related injuries are reported to emergency departments every year. Eye injuries such as corneal burns, ruptured eyeballs, and retinal detachments are common consequences of fireworks displays gone wrong, according to Wills Eye Hospital.
And eye safety isn’t the only thing fireworks fans need to worry about. In 2013, fireworks caused an estimated 15,600 fires in the United States, according to the National Fire Protection Agency. In fact, more than a quarter of fireworks-related fires from 2009 to 2013 happened on Independence Day.
Doctors see plenty of injuries to body parts other than the eyes, as well. Cassiopeia Roychowdhury, MD, a family medicine physician at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, says most common injuries from fireworks are burns to the hands and arms from mishandling.
“It’s important to take practical safety measures such as following directions on the fireworks themselves and standing far enough away when you are setting them off,” she said earlier this year in a press release from Penn State.
Dr. Roychowdhury points out that it’s not just big fireworks that can be dangerous. Nearly one-third of injuries are caused by handheld sparklers, she said, which parents often consider safe enough to let their children play with.
She cautions people to protect their hands and faces when setting off fireworks, to only use them with experienced fireworks operators, and to check their surroundings before setting off pyrotechnics to make sure no one is in harm’s way.
She also warns against adding alcohol to the mix. “Make sure anyone using fireworks is sober and has their wits about them,” she said in the press release. “You want to be smart about it.”
Superficial burns from firework-related close calls can be treated at home with aloe and over-the-counter pain relievers, says Dr. Roychowdhury, but only if the skin isn’t broken. Keep the wound clean using sterile water, she suggests, and watch for signs of increased warmth or redness.“It can very easily become infected, so it should be monitored closely,” she said.
Burns on the face, abdomen, or genitals—or any injuries that involve bleeding, drainage, or breaking of the skin—should be treated in a hospital emergency department right away.
The doctors at Wills Eye Hospital also warn against touching or using unexploded fireworks in any form. Even if it looks like a dud, as Urquhart learned, it could still explode.
They also encourage anyone attending a public fireworks show to keep a safe distance of at least 500 feet from where the products are being ignited. Bystanders at fireworks displays are injured just as often as operators, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. But luckily, you’re much safer at a public fireworks display than you are at a DIY one: Research from the Consumer Product Safety Commission has found that public displays account for only about 4% of total firework-related injuries—about 300 injuries a year—according to data from 2014.
As far as backyard fireworks displays go, the National Council of Fireworks Safety has a few more tips to keep everyone safe: Always wear safety glasses when shooting fireworks, light one firework at a time, and quickly move away. Only use fireworks outdoors, away from buildings and vehicles, and keep a bucket of water and a working hose nearby.
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Because pets can be frightened by fireworks and may be prone to running away when they get spooked, make sure they’re indoors in a safe place before any fireworks (public or amateur) are set off.
And finally, experts warn parents to be especially careful around fireworks at family gatherings where children are present. More than one-third of people hurt by fireworks in 2014 were under age 15, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and 9% were younger than 5. Children ages 5 to 9 were 2.4 times as likely as the general population to be injured by fireworks, and adolescents ages 10 to 19 were 1.8 times as likely.