Lighting fireworks for the 4th? Pick a ‘designated lighter’ & keep an eye on the kids

U-M burn prevention expert offers tips & urges early intervention for kids who play with fire

When it comes to fireworks, Karla Klas has seen it all. A young teen whose eye ruptured when a firework went off in his face. A kindergartner seriously burned by a sparkler that ignited his clothes. A middle-aged man who suffered horrifying facial injuries, when he lit fireworks after drinking more than a dozen beers.

Fireworks injuries - courtesy Consumer Product Safety Commission

Fireworks injuries – courtesy Consumer Product Safety Commission

So, as Fourth of July week rolls around, she and her colleagues are bracing for a new crop of fireworks-related injuries to roll in to the U-M Emergency Department and Trauma Burn Center. They care for the most seriously burned and injured patients in the state.

The number of patients injured by fireworks started to climb two years ago, when Michigan legalized the sale of more powerful fireworks in the state. More than 210 registered sellers of fireworks now offer everything from bottle rockets to aerial shells.

Nationally, fireworks hurt more than 7,400 people in the weeks leading up to and immediately after July Fourth. That’s 65 percent of all people hurt by fireworks all year.

“We’re really sending mixed messages to people, who think that because fireworks are legal, they’re safe,” says Klas, who runs the center’s prevention programs and serves as the national prevention committee chair for the American Burn Association. “Plus, local ordinances about when and where you can set them off are all over the map.”

Besides creating more opportunities for fireworks-related injuries, changes in the state law have made it easier for kids and teens to get their hands on fireworks. Some of these youth experiment by taking the devices apart and using the explosive contents in dangerous ways.

Klas offers these key tips:

If you choose to buy fireworks:

All kinds of fireworks can cause harm - courtesy Consumer Product Safety Commission

All kinds of fireworks can cause harm – courtesy Consumer Product Safety Commission

  1. Pick a “designated lighter” who will handle the fireworks for everyone at your gathering. Just like a designated driver, this person should be a responsible, sober adult – even a small amount of alcohol can alter judgment and reaction times.
  2. Read the instructions for each piece. That’s why they’re there. If they aren’t, don’t light the firework – it may be illegally made and not approved for consumer use.
  3. Put distance and a barrier between the fireworks and viewers, houses, trees and dry brush. Keep kids and pets from straying into the danger zone. “Many people don’t realize they are legally and financially liable for any collateral damage they cause by using fireworks,” says Klas.
  4. Light ‘em and get away. The faster, the better.
  5. If a device doesn’t go off after lighting, don’t lean over it to see what’s going on. Klas recalls some horrible injuries suffered by people who ‘just wanted to see’ why a firework hadn’t exploded or flown – and got hit when it did. Don’t try to re-light.
  6. Keep water nearby and use it to douse the remains, including any duds.
  7. Don’t think of sparklers as safe. “They burn at about 1,800 degrees, which is over 8 times hotter than boiling water,” says Klas. Kids shouldn’t be allowed to hold sparklers until they’re mature enough to follow directions.
  8. Set rules for sparkler use. No one holding a lit sparkler should spin, run, or do anything that could set fire to their own clothes and hair, or someone else’s. The best bet: Stick sparklers in the ground in a fun pattern, and light them in place. Just make sure the grass isn’t so dry it might catch fire.
  9. Don’t set any fireworks off on public grounds, or on private property without the owner’s permission. Both are illegal and could get you in trouble.
  10. Be smart and be safe. Remember that all regulated fireworks contain gunpowder and other toxic chemicals, and pack an explosive punch that can seriously injure people and pets, and cause fires. Treat them with respect.

To avoid the risk, but still create Fourth of July fun:

  1. Try novelty items that carry little risk, such as poppers, smoke bombs, “snakes” and confetti-filled noisemakers.
  2. Light up the night with LED devices, glowsticks and other glow-in-the-dark devices – these can get you and the kids in the spirit without danger if you use them as directed.
  3. Leave the show to the pros – go see a fireworks show in your city or town, where the professional pyrotechnics will be far better than anything you can do in your yard.

If a child or teen has been playing with fireworks or fire:

  1. Don’t wait to speak up. The earlier these fire-setting or experimentation behaviors can be addressed in an educational, positive way, the less likely they are to lead to serious injuries and/or problems, Klas says.
  2. Don’t think “boys will be boys”. Playing with fire and fireworks – including taking them apart and using their contents to blow up toys – isn’t ever safe. And if no one steps in, it will only continue – and perhaps escalate.
  3. Refer the child or teen to a free educational program, such as the Straight Talk program at the U-M Trauma Burn Center or ones held by local fire departments. Proper intervention and support can help young people understand the danger they’re creating, and help re-direct them to safer behaviors and activities. Discipline and punishment alone won’t work.

The bottom line, says Klas: “Fireworks rarely kill amateur users, but they do cause life-changing injuries, from finger amputations and blindness to facial disfigurement and burns that leave lasting scars. While under current state legislation we can’t stop fireworks from being sold, we can hopefully keep people from getting hurt and ruining their holiday festivities.”

Take the next step:

Trauma Burn Center logoFounded in 1959, the U-M Trauma Burn Center was one of the first  dedicated burn units in the U.S. Verified as both a Burn Center & a Level‐1 Trauma Center by the American Burn Association & the American College of Surgeons, it is recognized for the ability to care for the most severely injured patients, and leadership in research, education, outreach & prevention. Each year, an average of 1,400 multiple-trauma and burn patients are admitted to U-M. The center serves as the State Burn Coordinating Center for Michigan & offers award-winning outreach programs.