October 17, 2006

Seeing through the smoke: How safe are “safe and sane” fireworks?

One thing that the Safe and Sane fireworks industry likes to tout is its safety record.

Using statistics from the Consumer Product safety Commission, the National Research Council, the National Fire Protection Association and the American Pyrotechnics Association (“APA” the lobbying group for the fireworks distributors):

In 1997 there were almost 660,000 fires in the US. (this does not appear to include forest fires). Of the total fires, the industry claims that only .1% were caused by fireworks whereas 3.3% of the total dollars lost were from fires caused by cigarettes. As for total fires caused it was .3% for fireworks and 3.4% for cigarettes. This may mean that the cigarette fires may have been to more expensive property. But the main point that the APA does not point out is a very obvious one: Fireworks are overwhelmingly used only for a few days during July 4. Cigarettes on the other hand are used 365 days a year by many more people than fireworks. What would the figure be if all smokers used fireworks all year? Likely much higher than cigarette caused fires just due to the fact that fireworks burn hotter and spray sparks unlike cigarettes, which are quite tame by comparison. The dollar total for just fire damage in 1997 from fireworks was nearly 5.5 million dollars (over 2,500 fires).

Now we move on to safety and personal injuries. Ask any fireman, doctor or policeman (whose clubs are not making money selling fireworks ) if they feel they are safer than not using any fireworks the answer will be no. Most agree that they should be banned just due to the sheer nuisance calls they generate.

The comparison to smoking continues on personal injuries. (see our related article on the similarities of smoking and fireworks). From 1994 through 2004 fireworks injuries have stayed from 12,500 to 9,600 per year. Eight people died in 2004 from fireworks injuries. Of the injuries, about three times as many males were injured as females. Children under 15 accounted for 40% of all the estimated fireworks-related injuries and 10% of the injuries involved sparklers, surely seen as the tamest form of safe and sane fireworks. Using APA figures again there were 11,000 injuries due to fireworks in 2000 and 14,700 due to cigarettes AND lighters. Once again as with property damage figures the fireworks manufactures fail to point out that all the fireworks injuries are occurring in the space of a few days as opposed to all year long for other consumer products. Also there are a lot more people using cigarettes than fireworks. So it might be fair to compare Christmas Tree fires/injuries with Fireworks fires. But those figures are not supplied by the APA.

On commercial aircraft you used to be able to smoke. It was banned due to health reasons, but is still allowed in some countries. Also you can still take matches and cigarettes on aircraft. Not so with safe and sane fireworks either before or after 9/11 in either carry on or checked baggage. In fact after 9/11 you can still check loaded firearms!

What about schools? They promote the sale and use of fireworks yet do not allow students to carry them on campus at all. Why? They are not safe.

Also we are ignoring pet safety. If fireworks make pets run away from home into the streets are they still pet safe? And what about air pollution? Do fireworks get a free pass on air pollution? Have you seen the haze and smelled the sulfur in the air on the 4th? Where do you think all that pollution goes? How many trips to work does all the pollution equal? What about the run off of the spent fireworks residue people wash into the gutter and then into the local oceans? Fireworks contain deadly perchlorates that are already banned and being looked at even closer due to groundwater contamination.

So are safe and sane fireworks safe? Well that depends on what you compare them to and whose safety your are looking at. Yes they are “safer” than illegal fireworks but it also depends on how legal fireworks are used. Many are used by children without adult supervision. Many are used by people that are intoxicated. Many are thrown or modified in some way so as to drastically increase their danger. Safe and Sane fireworks are not safer than a total ban on fireworks. The title “safe and sane” was likely coined by a fireworks lobbyist and slipped into the law in California. The term generally means fireworks that do not shoot up into the air or explode. That still leaves a lot of room for injury.

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