- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 16, 2004

This Fourth of July promises to be a blast. Sales of consumer fireworks are skyrocketing, industry officials say.

Fireworks sales have increased every year since 2000, when the industry’s revenue was $610 million, to a record $775 million last year, said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association.

It looks as if the fireworks boom will continue this year, said William Weimer, vice president of Phantom Fireworks, which operates 36 stores in 11 states. His company has seen an 84 percent increase in traffic at its Web site (www.fireworks.com) during the first five months of 2004 compared with the same period last year.

He is proud of his company’s role in promoting a patriotic tradition.

“Fireworks are synonymous with Independence Day dating back to 1776,” Mr. Weimer said. “It is ingrained in the American psyche.”

Mr. Weimer cited the words of John Adams, who predicted in a 1776 letter to his wife, Abigail, that “illuminations” would be a part of America’s celebration of its independence.

The occasion “ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore,” Adams said.

However, some groups are adamantly opposed to the use of consumer fireworks. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is a consortium of groups and organizations, mostly related to health and fire safety, that are against the sale and use of consumer fireworks.

NFPA spokeswoman Margie Coloian said 8,800 people were injured last year “bad enough to go to the emergency room. Fireworks cause several thousand fires each year. This is not only a medical problem.”

NFPA is “not opposed to fireworks, just consumer use of fireworks,” Ms. Coloian said. “We encourage people to go to professional displays and not to handle them themselves.”

However, increased sales of consumer fireworks in recent years have not been accompanied by increases in injury or mortality rates, said the National Council on Fireworks Safety (NCFS). Technological advances in commercial pyrotechnics, coupled with stricter safety tests and standards and public-awareness efforts, have helped to decrease the number of injuries caused by fireworks in the past 20 years, industry officials say.

“The rate of injury has fallen dramatically,” Ann Crampton of the NCFS said. “This can be attributed to safer products, better education, and people being smarter about it.”

In the United States, seven states forbid the sale or use of any fireworks. Other laws range from allowing the sale of all consumer fireworks in 17 states to permitting “safe and sane” fireworks in 19 states — including Maryland and Virginia — and the District, and authorizing only “novelty fireworks” and sparklers in seven states, the NFSC said.

John Lott, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute on Public Policy Research, analyzed data on deaths involving fireworks and found that, from 1999 to 2001, states that banned fireworks had an annual death rate of 0.0018 per 100,000 people.

“States with essentially all consumer fireworks allowed had a death rate that was even lower at 0.0014 per 100,000,” Mr. Lott said.

Although the soaring sales of consumer fireworks — up from 161 million pounds in 2001 to 221 million pounds in 2003 — has been accompanied by a decrease in injuries, legislators and interest groups continue to lobby for more state and federal restrictions on the sale and use of fireworks.

“It’s a knee-jerk reaction with legislators,” said Mr. Weimer of Phantom Fireworks. “They take action without regard to their electorate. People just need to use common sense. If you’ve been drinking, you should have a designated igniter, just like you should have a designated driver. … You wouldn’t let children play with matches, so you shouldn’t let them play with fireworks.”

In keeping with the patriotic spirit of Independence Day, many fireworks products feature flag-waving themes. Phantom markets products with such names as Battle of the Coral Sea, Invasion of Normandy, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Red White and Boom. California-based United Pyro sells a product called Search and Destroy, featuring the face of Saddam Hussein in a target. A TNT Fireworks stand in the District sells products with names such as Star-Spangled Banner and American Spirit.

Nearly all consumer fireworks sold in America, however, are made in China.

The American Fireworks Safety Laboratory (AFSL), with headquarters in Bethesda, is responsible for testing consumer fireworks imported from China. These products are not allowed to enter the United States unless they meet safety requirements and pass all AFSL tests. This, in effect, forces Chinese manufacturers to improve the quality of their products to meet U.S. federal government standards, Mr. Weimer said.

Once they have entered the U.S. market, field agents from the Consumer Product Safety Commission sample and test the products, sometimes going undercover to buy fireworks and taking them back to the lab for testing.

“Products are tested and retested,” Mr. Weimer said. “Our products are tested at least twice before they hit the shelves, first by the AFSL and then by our company. We don’t want people to get hurt.”

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