On the Fourth of July, teenagers are most likely to be injured launching homemade fireworks, adults by shell-and-mortar explosives and children by errant rockets.
A University of Washington study published this year looked at the types of fireworks that caused the most severe injuries, and the age of those injured. Shell-and-mortar fireworks caused 40 percent of all injuries requiring hospitalization.
The findings underscore the inherent danger of fireworks, according to Dr. Monica Vavilala, director of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center.
The study examined 294 patients admitted to Harborview Medical Center between 2005 and 2015.
Nationwide, 10,500 people were treated in emergency departments for firework-related injuries in 2014, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Thirty-five percent of those who were injured were 15 or younger. Roughly half of all those injured by fireworks were bystanders, according to a 2010 study.
The UW study is the first to look at which fireworks cause the most serious injuries, Vavilala said. In addition to looking at what type of firework caused the worst injuries, the study also examined differences in injuries between children, teenagers and adults.
“I think the kids, it’s just being bystanders and being hit by these rockets,” Vavilala said. “And the teenagers are making their own homemade fireworks.”
Vavilala said nationally the number of firework injuries sustained each year hasn’t changed much over the past decade.
Part of the problem, she thinks, is that firework injuries are often considered “minor” and “not a big deal.” In fact, they can be life-altering and deadly.
Two of the patients in the UW study died from their injuries, Vailala said. One person, who was on oxygen, was sitting in a wheelchair watching when the individual’s oxygen tank exploded. The other person was hit by a shell-and-mortar firework.
Even seemingly harmless fireworks like sparklers can have serious consequences, said Dr. Jeffrey Colburn, a pediatric ophthalmologist in Spokane.
“If you take an eye injury, the consequences are lifelong,” he said.
Sparklers burn at about 2,000 degrees.
About 1,300 firework-related eye injuries were treated in U.S. emergency rooms in 2014. That’s more than double the 600 reported treatments in 2012, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
“Burns on the surface of the eye will often leave a long-term vision deficit,” he said.
Unfortunately, children are the ones most often injured.
“I think that it should be illegal for kids to play with them,” Colburn said.
He added, “As an ophthalmologist, I can’t recommend in good (conscience) that anyone plays with fireworks.”
Instead, he recommends attending a professional firework show.
Colburn became passionate about firework safety while working as a resident doctor.
A 10-year-old child came into the emergency room. He’d been playing with a firework and it blew up in his face, badly burning his eye. Since then, Colburn said “every year I try to educate anyone I can about firework safety.”
Spokane fire Chief Brian Schaeffer corroborated the study’s findings and Colburn’s observations. Schaeffer said around the Fourth of July, the fire department sees an increase in burns and injuries to children. According to the National Fire Protection Association, fireworks start more than 18,000 fires per year.
“The challenge for me is, often times, it’s not the adults that are getting hurt, it’s the children,” he said.
He added, “It’s unfortunate. Like I said, it’s preventable.”
That being said, Schaeffer has seen improvements in the 24 years since fireworks were outlawed in the county. Before they were outlawed, firework-related injuries and accidents were generally accepted as just a part of the holiday.
“Throughout the years, that level of acceptance has really gone down,” he said. “Fireworks are now seen for what they are. They are explosives.”
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