Light Up July 4th -- Safely

Before you light up that sparkler, learn some fireworks safety tips to help you bring in Independence Day with a bang, and without injury.

5 min read

Watermelon, hamburgers, red, white, and blue, and of course, fireworks -- are all the makings of any good Independence Day party. From Roman candles to cherry bombs to bottle rockets, it's one of the few times a year that Americans feel compelled to strike a match and watch sparks fly.

While this may be amusing, setting off fireworks isn't exactly the safest way to celebrate our independence -- and in some cases it's even illegal. This year, before you light up that sparkler and start practicing amateur pyrotechnics, learn some safety tips from experts who can help you bring in July Fourth with a bang, but without injury.

Dating back to Independence Day in 1776, when John Adams penned a letter to his wife Abigail saying, "I am apt to believe that this day will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations," fireworks have been a part of our country's history.

More than 100 years later, there were approximately 9,700 fireworks-related injuries in 2003, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association.

"Because more fireworks are used on and around the Fourth of July in the U.S. than in any other celebration in the world, there is a larger concentration of injuries," says Ann Crampton, spokeswoman for the National Council on Fireworks Safety.

Boys, curious creatures that they are, are the most likely to be injured.

"The group that is most likely to be injured is teen boys, and I don't think that's surprising," says Crampton. "Kids that age are adventurous and they like to take risks."

Most commonly, fireworks-related injuries involve children under 14; 75% of those are boys, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. The hands and fingers, the eyes, and the head and face are most frequently injured, and more than half of these injuries are burns. The culprits that cause the most injuries are: sparklers (26%), firecrackers (18%), and rockets (15%).

While kids are the most likely to get hurt, for parents, this means that you should never leave your children alone with fireworks -- even fireworks as seemingly benign as sparklers, which were associated with the most injuries in children younger than age 5 in 2001, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

"Close adult supervision is the most important thing that we can get out to people about safety on the Fourth," says Crampton. "Choose an adult who is reliable, responsible, and will have his wits about him at the end of the day. Have him follow directions, look at the product, see what it's supposed to do, and what its proper use is."

Improperly using fireworks, and using illegal fireworks, means you're playing with fire.

"The misuse of legal products, such as lighting several sparklers at a time, can cause serious injury," says Crampton.

Serious injury can also come from mixing fireworks with alcohol -- a recipe for disaster.

"As you get into the teenagers, and the older age groups, almost every injury is associated with drinking," says Harry Severance, MD, of Duke University. "People say, 'Let's go out on the beach, have a few beers, and blow up some rockets,' -- not smart."

And though you can't buy fireworks in some states because they're illegal, that doesn't mean people don't make their own.

"When someone says, 'I'm going to take five m80s apart and make an m1000,' you're talking about making an explosive on the level of an industrial explosion," says Severance, spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians. "You're talking about an incredible blast force. If you are up close and personal to that, you can receive blast type injuries, such as shock wave damage -- penetrating injuries where the fireworks are embedded in a person; you can really hurt yourself with large homemade fireworks, and they're all illegal."

The good news is that if used properly, fireworks can be safe -- and fun. According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of injuries, even though fireworks usage has increased dramatically since 1976, because of improved product safety and improved consumer education.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Council on Fireworks Safety, follow these tips to safely celebrate your independence:

  • Always read and follow label directions on all fireworks carefully, to make sure you are properly using the product.
  • Have an adult present when using fireworks; never give fireworks to small children, and never leave older kids unsupervised with fireworks.
  • Buy from reliable sellers.
  • Use fireworks outdoors only.
  • Always have water handy (a garden hose and a bucket), and when you're finished with sparklers and other fireworks, soak them so you know they're out.
  • Never experiment or make your own fireworks, and light only one at a time.
  • Never re-light a "dud" firework (wait 15 to 20 minutes and then soak it in a bucket of water).
  • If necessary, store fireworks in a cool, dry place.
  • Dispose of fireworks properly by soaking them in water and then disposing of them in your tartan.
  • Never throw or point fireworks at other people.
  • Never carry fireworks in your pocket.
  • Never shoot fireworks in metal or glass containers.
  • The shooter should always wear eye protection and never have any part of the body over the firework.
  • Stay away from illegal explosives.

After going through your safety list, and before you strike that match and light up that sparkler, check to make sure you're not breaking any laws.

"Know your local laws," says Crampton. "Even though there are 43 states and the District of Columbia that allow some type of fireworks, there are restrictions at the county level and city level. Check with your local fire department to clarify the law in your area."

Finally, what's the safest way to spend your Fourth of July?

"It's really a lot better to go to a professional show," says Severance. "These are a lot safer, and if you let someone else do it, and you get all the benefits and all you have to do is sit there and watch -- that is my No. 1 recommendation."