Like backyard barbecues and American flags, fireworks are a traditional part of the Fourth of July. But so, too, are emergency rooms with people who have blown off their fingers or singed their skin.
As states have cracked down on fireworks, some have discovered an unintended consequence: While the number of injuries has declined, states with the strictest regulations had the most injuries.
So now, a few states are deciding that it’s better to let people play with sparklers and other fairly harmless amusements so that they won’t resort to powerful illegal explosives such as cherry bombs or M-80s.
“People seem to enjoy (fireworks), especially this time of year, so if they can do it with small safe items, then I think they should be allowed to,” said New Hampshire state Rep. Bruce Hunter, a Republican who heads the state’s Fireworks Review Committee, which added 43 types of fireworks to its list of legal fireworks this year.
North Carolina and West Virginia also legalized more types of fireworks over the past few years, and there were attempts this year in Ohio to expand the sale of legal fireworks and in Arizona to permit the sale of any fireworks.
Washington state law allows cities and counties to adopt their own regulations or use the state’s fairly lax guidelines.
Spokane city and county have drafted their own ordinances banning the sale and use of fireworks.
Industry officials said they expect more states will reconsider their regulations because an outright ban penalizes law-abiding citizens who want to have a little fun.
John Conkling, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, which represents fireworks manufacturers and distributors, said, “When you have a prohibition, you end up preventing adults from using fireworks safely, but you don’t stop kids from getting their hands on illegal explosives - so you get a much more dangerous situation.”
Not everyone is convinced. Most states have some statewide fireworks regulations. Only Hawaii and Nevada have regulations solely at the local level. Ten states, including New York, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Georgia, prohibit the sale of all fireworks to consumers. Six other states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio, severely limit the fireworks for sale.
Law enforcement officials in Washington state are trying to adopt more stringent guidelines that would at least require children to be 16 years old in order to purchase fireworks.
Public hearings on the proposed legislation are expected to begin in September.
Officials in New York, which has a “zero-tolerance” policy about fireworks, said they have no intention of easing their regulations.
“We strictly enforce the fireworks law, and it’s working,” said Sgt. Sean Crowley of the New York City Police Department, noting that the number of fireworks-related injuries during last year’s Fourth of July holiday fell 32 percent from the previous year.
And federal public safety officials credited strict regulations for the steady decline in fireworks-related injuries over the past few years.
In 1996, there were an estimated 7,600 fireworks-related injuries, about two-thirds occurring around the Fourth of July, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The number of estimated injuries dropped from 12,900 in 1994, and 11,300 in 1995. (The commission attributes last year’s drop to stronger regulation and bad weather in many parts of the country.)
Surprisingly, states banning all kinds of consumer fireworks had a higher number of injuries than states that permitted the sale of some types of consumer fireworks.
In 1995, the 10 states that ban all fireworks accounted for about one-fifth of the U.S. population and 41 percent of reported injuries. Between 1990 and 1994, injuries in those states accounted for nearly half of all reported injuries.
Julie Heckman, who analyzed the injury statistics for the American Pyrotechnics Association, said explosives that are illegal under federal law caused many of the injuries. In New York, for instance, 45 percent of the injuries stemmed from the use of illegal explosives.
Sold in eye-catching packages with names like “Vesuvius Fountain” and “Blazing Rebel,” a legal firework has a maximum of 50 milligrams of pyrotechnic material (usually gunpowder and special chemicals) in such products as sparklers, fountains or bottle rockets.
Illegal explosives - often sold in the form of M-80s (a tube filled with explosives), cherry bombs (a small, round bomb), or quartersticks (which are the equivalent of a quarter-stick of dynamite) - can have as much as 140 times the legal amount of pyrotechnic material.
To ensure that a firework is safe and legal, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms suggests that consumers buy fireworks only from vendors who operate openly and not from people who approach you on the street.
Fireworks should be stored in a cool, dry place and should be lit only outdoors in a clear area away from anything that might catch fire. Fireworks should never be lit in bottles or cans.
If these guidelines are followed, people can safely enjoy a ritual that began in the 10th century, when the Chinese first stuffed gunpowder into thin stalks of bamboo.
“People get a kick out of fireworks,” said Ann Crampton, executive director of the National Council on Fireworks Safety, an industry-funded group. “They’re not sure how it works, but they love the beautiful colors and effects.”