- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Many Americans celebrate their nation’s independence by enjoying the backyard variety of “the rockets’ red glare,” but some safety groups are calling for a nationwide ban on consumer fireworks this Fourth of July.

The National Fire Protection Association last week teamed with 20 other health-advocacy organizations to start a public-safety campaign urging Americans not to use consumer fireworks because of the dangers they pose, especially to children.

“Every year, consumer fireworks injure and maim our children,” NFPA President James M. Shannon said at a Washington press conference, where the anti-fireworks campaign was announced. “Consumer fireworks are a significant public-safety concern shared by doctors, nurses, other health care professionals, and members of the fire service.”

The NFPA campaign features ads showing a small child and urging parents to “keep fireworks from hurting your family.”

“The risk is too great,” it says.

Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, called the NFPA campaign “misleading.”

“Today’s consumer fireworks are strictly regulated, quite safe when used properly, and injuries have declined by almost 75 percent during the past decade,” the APA director said.

She and other pro-fireworks advocates point to statistics suggesting that opponents exaggerate the dangers posed by backyard pyrotechnics.

Data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission — which inspects and approves all consumer fireworks sold in the United States — show that rates of fireworks-related injuries has declined in recent years, even as sales have increased rapidly. In 2003, fireworks were responsible for 9,300 injuries, more than two-thirds of which occurred in the one-month period surrounding July 4, according to CPSC statistics.

The APA, a fireworks-industry association, also cites CPSC data showing that in 2000:

• Cooking ranges and ovens caused 44,098 injuries, about four times as many as were caused by fireworks (11,000).

• Heating stoves and space heaters caused nearly twice as many injuries (21,713) as fireworks.

• Nearly 18,000 injuries were caused by barbecue grills — about 7,000 more than were caused by fireworks.

There are currently six states that have complete bans on consumer fireworks: Arizona, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island. Three years ago, 10 states had comprehensive bans.

Many states — including Maryland, Virginia and the District — have legalized so-called “safe-and-sane” fireworks such as fountains that produce showers of colorful sparks, but do not fly or explode. “Safe-and-sane” laws still prohibit sales of firecrackers and aerial devices like skyrockets and shells. Nineteen states permit firecrackers and aerials.

From 1990 to 2003, an average of six persons each year died from fireworks-related accidents, according to economist John R. Lott Jr. of the American Enterprise Institute.

Since 1990, U.S. sales of consumer fireworks have tripled. Mr. Lott estimated, based on reports from the National Council on Fireworks Safety, that in 1990 Americans purchased 68 million pounds of fireworks. In 2003, they purchased 221 million pounds of fireworks.

Ms. Heckman of the APA said the fireworks-injury rate per 100,000 Americans has dropped from 38 in 1976 to 4.4 in 2003. Most injuries and deaths “are related to product misuses, not faulty fireworks,” she added. “They’re people who do not follow common sense.”

Safety labels required by the CPSC clearly warn against holding or throwing fireworks, and tragedy can result when those warnings aren’t heeded. Two Florida men died from burns after a June 2004 incident, in which a cigarette ignited a pile of fireworks in their car. Before the explosion, the men had been driving around, lighting fireworks and throwing them from the vehicle.

Ms. Heckman said consumer fireworks can be safely enjoyed by following a few simple rules. “Look at the label and read the instructions,” she said. “If you follow common sense, you’re going to have a safe backyard display.”

Common-sense precautions include delegating a sober adult to be in charge of the display and keeping a bucket of water or hose nearby in case of a fire, she said.

But NFPA spokesman Margie Coloian said the fireworks statistics are serious enough to warrant concern. “Nine thousand, three hundred injuries, most of them to children, is a very serious concern,” she said. “I don’t know how we can downplay that.”

Ms. Coloian specifically criticized sparklers, which she said are commonly used by children because parents believe they are relatively harmless. Sparklers burn at more than 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, Ms. Coloian said, and can cause severe burns.

“We feel very strongly that there is no safe way to use them,” Ms. Coloian said. “We suggest people go to public displays of fireworks and leave fireworks to the professionals.”

Yet Mr. Lott said that his research into fireworks safety indicates “most of those deaths actually seem to have occurred around professional fireworks displays.”

Last year, for example, a 13-year-old girl in Maysville, Calif., lost her right leg when a shell misfired at the city’s Fourth of July show.

Comparing the risks of fireworks to the hazards of auto travel, Mr. Lott added that with the low rate of deaths from fireworks — an average of about .015 per million Americans in the last 13 years — encouraging people to attend professional displays, rather than enjoy their own backyard fireworks, could actually result in more deaths.

“You’d probably end up having more people die because of the increased driving to get to the fireworks than you would if people had access to [consumer] fireworks,” he said.

Public support for legal fireworks has led to wider consumer availability, especially of safe-and-sane fireworks, which are sold in many convenience and discount stores. In March, Georgia lawmakers voted to end their state’s ban on consumer fireworks, legalizing safe-and-sane products for the first time since 1963.

In May, Anne Arundel County, Md., officials rejected a measure that would have banned consumer fireworks, after members of the county council said they were flooded with e-mails from county residents who opposed the ban.

“I just wonder how far government has to go to keep people from having fun,” said council member Ed Middlebrooks. “Do we keep outlawing to protect people from themselves?”

Such sentiment is widespread, Ms. Heckman said.

“The general public speaks pretty loudly about wanting the ability to use backyard fireworks,” she said.

Plus, she added, “banning fireworks seems kind of unpatriotic.”

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