Things that go boom

One of the splendid things about summer is the sight of Fourth of July fireworks blooming against the night sky.

That is, until someone gets hurt and ends up spending part of the holiday weekend in an emergency room.

Fireworks-related injuries tend to follow a predictable pattern: They often involve children, with the under-15 age group accounting for about half of all fireworks-related injuries reported in the U.S. each year.

Injuries to the hands, face and head are most common. The eyes are especially vulnerable; according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, about 30 percent of fireworks injuries involving the head directly affect the eyes – and about one-fourth of fireworks-related eye injuries result in permanent vision loss or blindness.

The culprit for the most serious eye injuries? Bottle rockets, which are a major offender because of their tendency to fly erratically and hit bystanders. Eye injuries from bottle rockets can be quite severe – eyelid lacerations, corneal abrasions, traumatic cataract, retinal detachment, optic nerve damage and rupture of the eyeball, to name a few.

Firecrackers and sparklers also are associated with a fair number of injuries each year. Sparklers may be pretty to look at but they burn at temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees F. – hot enough to melt gold and potentially dangerous for children to play with.

Noise levels associated with fireworks receive less attention than burns, eye injuries and other risks. This doesn’t mean they’re harmless to the ears, though. Fireworks displays have been clocked at 140 decibels, a few notches softer than the noise of an aircraft at takeoff and louder than a chainsaw, amplified music or lawn mower. According to hearing experts, hearing loss can occur with regular exposure to noise louder than 110 decibels or more for periods of a minute or longer.

Many fireworks-related injuries are the direct result of misuse – standing too close to a lit firework, for instance, or trying to pick up or relight a firework that hasn’t fully ignited.

Illegal fireworks also are an increasing source of injuries. Just last weekend, officials in Ohio seized hundreds of illegal fireworks that were apparently being sold out of someone’s house. The stash included professional-grade explosive shells meant to be used in fireworks shows. In a recent case in Nebraska, a 46-year-old man was killed in an explosion while allegedly manufacturing fireworks in his garage.

Warnings and recommendations about safely enjoying fireworks are issued every year. Is it making a difference? Perhaps so; in Minnesota, the number of fireworks-related injuries has been reduced by nearly half in recent years, falling from 111 in 2004 to 57 in 2009. Property damage also declined.

Nationally, there were three fireworks-related deaths last year and 8,600 injuries that required treatment in a hospital emergency room. For more safety information and statistics, click here.

Image: West Central Tribune file photo

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