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June 5, 2006

A University of Michigan Health Minute update on important health issues.

U-M expert, burn patient shed new light on importance of fireworks safety

To make Fourth of July sparkle, follow these tips for a safe Independence Day

ANN ARBOR, MI – For 24-year-old Michael White, the Fourth of July holds many memories – most of which, unfortunately, are very painful reminders of a careless act with an illegal firework.


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Wanting to get a little extra ‘bang’ out of some illegal fireworks last year, White decided to cut the wick of a big mortar firework – one very similar to the explosives used by professionals for city-sponsored firework displays.

But instead of the loud and colorful fireworks display he’d planned, White received third-degree burns over 30 percent of his body, including his arms and legs, when the mortar exploded while he was still next to it.

“I was messing around with illegal fireworks when I shouldn’t have even had them in the first place,” recalls White, who received care for his burns at the University of Michigan Trauma Burn Center. “But I wanted to clown around and I paid the ultimate price for it.”

Each year in the United States, about 10,000 people like White are injured in firework-related accidents. The most common fireworks injuries are burns or lacerations to the hands, face, feet and eyes, says Stewart Wang, M.D., Burn Director, University of Michigan Trauma Burn Center.

“The most severe injuries are those that destroy digits or even entire limbs,” he says. “We’ve treated people who have had partial or complete loss of sight or hearing impairment because of fireworks. A number of people die from firework injuries, too, most often because their clothes caught fire or the fireworks caused a large fire that engulfed the patient’s home or surroundings.”

And White knows all-too-well how quickly burn and trauma injuries can occur, and how they can change a life forever. White had to undergo two surgeries and skin grafts to treat his burn injuries. Then came months of physical therapy, where he had to learn how to walk again.    

Health Minute ImageMany younger children also are seriously injured by fireworks each year. Most often, Wang says, young children are burned by sparklers. While sparklers are legal in Michigan, they burn at very high temperatures, and can cause serious injury to young hands if there’s not proper parental supervision.

To keep children and adults safe this Independence Day, Wang offers some tips to help prevent injury while using fireworks.

Wang’s 7 tips for fireworks safety

  • Keep kids (and adults) at a safe distance. To avoid serious injury, all children should be supervised by an adult when fireworks are in use. Adults, too, should make sure that they stay at a safe distance after lighting a firework, or when watching a fireworks display. “It’s important to make sure that there is no horseplay or anyone running around near a device that’s been lit,” says Wang.
  • Only use legal fireworks. Adults should stick to using legal fireworks to prevent injury. “Never use homemade fireworks or illegal fireworks because they can result in large fires and cause severe injuries,” says Wang.
  • Don’t try to get a bigger bang. Even with legal fireworks, Wang says: “You should never try to increase the power of the fireworks by putting together multiple devices or by cutting the wick.”
  • Never put fireworks in containers. Wang stresses to never put fireworks of any kind in containers like bottles or jars. “When those fireworks go off, the containers can break, resulting in a large amount of pieces of shrapnel that can cause tremendous injuries.”
  • Look for a safe location. Fireworks should only be used outside and on a level surface. The location of your fireworks show also should be away from any flammable materials and at a safe distance from homes.
  • If at first it doesn’t light, don’t try again. “If the firework device does not go off when you first light it, don’t try to relight it. That’s when we see severe injuries occur because a person is in close proximity and the device lights much faster than anticipated.” Instead, Wang advises to douse the firework with water and safely dispose of it once it’s cooled. In fact, it’s important to keep a bucket of water nearby for such situations.
  • Remember: Fireworks and alcohol don’t mix. “If you’re going to use fireworks, it’s very important to have all of your senses about you,” notes Wang. “People who mix alcohol with fireworks are those who most often have the most severe injuries.”

This year, White plans to enjoy the fireworks on the Fourth of July from the safety of his home. He hopes others will learn from his mistakes and cautions people not to use illegal fireworks. “I learned that you shouldn’t clown around with illegal fireworks. It really wasn’t worth it.”

Continues Wang: “The Fourth of July is a great time to celebrate and fireworks are an important part of the American tradition. But the best thing to do is to sit back and let the professionals do it.”

For more information, visit these web sites:
U-M Trauma Burn Center

UMHS press release: As fireworks season blasts off, avoid injuries by leaving it to the experts

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Spotlight on Injuries from Fireworks

National Fire Protection Association: Fireworks


Written by Krista Hopson


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