With communities across the United States canceling Fourth of July celebrations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, backyard fireworks are likely to be more popular than ever.
And that has many health experts worried. They fear injuries will soar among amateurs who don’t know how to use fireworks safely. Even before the holiday, explosives are being set off in America’s backyards and on city blocks at unprecedented levels this year.
“It’s certainly a risky endeavor to try to use explosives like this without any proper training,” said Maureen Vogel, director of communications at the National Safety Council.
But a new nationwide survey suggests that’s a risk many Americans are willing to accept in celebration of the nation’s independence.
The online national survey of more than 2,000 adults by Orlando Health in Florida projects that more than two in five Americans will buy fireworks this year and 16% said their purchases were a direct result of COVID-19 cancellations.
But despite their ability to dazzle onlookers, fireworks pose significant health risks, doctors warn.
“Heading into the holiday weekend every year, I anticipate that we will see some of the injuries that people sustain from fireworks,” said Dr. Eric Adkins, an emergency medicine doctor at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
With 80 times as many firework complaints filed in New York City this summer compared to last year, according to The New York Times, and similar increases in Boston, Sacramento and other areas, hospital emergency departments are preparing for more fireworks-related injuries than usual this Independence Day weekend.
The most common ones are burns — often to the hands, fingers, legs or arms.
Adkins said that eye injuries are also common, and protective eyewear is always recommended when using fireworks.
In 2017, eight people died, and more than 12,000 needed medical treatment for fireworks-related injuries, according to a report from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The general advice from health experts is this: Leave the fireworks to the pros.
Still, as people grasp for some sense of normalcy and tradition during the pandemic, many will likely choose to use fireworks, despite the risks.
For those who do, experts recommend taking precautions to ensure everyone is as safe as possible.
First and foremost, be cautious about gathering in large groups, Adkins cautioned.
“You still have to take all the proper precautions around safety for the coronavirus and the spread of infection,” he said.
The next step is to check state and local laws, the Safety Council’s Vogel said. Fireworks are legal in some states and illegal in others, and understanding the particulars will help ensure that no one gets in legal trouble.
“Just going over state lines and buying [fireworks] in a state where it’s legal and then bringing them back to your own state creates a lot of problems,” Vogel noted. “If they’re not legal in your state, you should not be using them in your state.”
To prevent injury, never light fireworks around people who are unaware that they’re going to be going off around them.
“The injuries that we see involving fireworks do not just happen to the people who are lighting them, they often happen to spectators or people just walking by,” Vogel said.
It’s essential to have water or a fire extinguisher nearby. Fireworks touched off an estimated 19,500 fires in 2018, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
And both Adkins and Vogel warned that sparklers — often a child’s first fireworks — aren’t as innocent as they may seem.
“Sparklers actually burn up to around 2,000 degrees, and they can be extremely dangerous,” Vogel said.
And though it may seem obvious, never hold a firework whose fuse has been lit or light fireworks indoors. Young children should never handle them, and older ones should be closely supervised.
Be aware of where the firework is pointing, and make sure it is not facing yourself or another person.
“If you’re an amateur and you’ve never worked with these devices before, you may not realize how you’re holding it or what the trajectory might be,” Vogel said.
If a firework doesn’t light, don’t try to relight it.
“If it’s not lighting, that could mean that there’s a malfunction, and you’re going to want to not go with that firework,” Vogel said.
Finally, if you’re at all impaired by alcohol or other drugs, you should never use fireworks.
The bottom line: If your fireworks show is canceled, don’t try to replace it by creating your own.
The experts don’t exactly know why there has been such an increase in amateur fireworks, but Vogel suspects it owes to nostalgia and people wanting to preserve traditions affected by the pandemic.
“But it’s certainly a risky endeavor to try to use explosives like this without any proper training,” she added.
There’s more on firework safety at the National Safety Council.
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