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Leave fireworks to the professionals, say UCI Health experts

June 27, 2014
Sparkler glows in the evening light

UCI Health Dr. Bharath Chakravarthy knows well how dangerous fireworks can be. At age 13, he and some middle-school buddies were lighting and tossing firecrackers a few days before the Fourth of July when one exploded in his right hand.

“I couldn't feel anything and all I could see was blood, so I thought my fingers were blown off completely,” Chakravarthy recalls. “I went to the garden faucet and ran my bloodied hand under the water and realized I still had my fingers. I lost sensation in them for weeks.”

The safest way to enjoy Fourth of July fireworks, says the emergency medicine specialist: Attend public displays put on by professionals.

Dr. Victor C. Joe, director of the UCI Health Regional Burn Center, says people should even be wary of fireworks sold legally in California. “There is no such thing as a safe-and-sane firework,” he says. “For a brief moment of excitement, there’s a real danger of causing someone else or ourselves lifelong injury or causing a wildfire.”

In 2012, an estimated 8,700 people were treated in U.S. emergency rooms for burns, lacerations and other injuries caused by fireworks — both legal and illegal, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. At least six people died. Nearly 60 percent — or 5,200 — of those injuries occurred between June 22 and July 22.

Nearly half the injuries recorded in that one-month study period were to children and young adults under age 20, with children under age 15 making up 30 percent of the total. About one-fourth of the injuries were caused by sparklers, fountains and novelty fireworks.   

“All fireworks can cause injuries, whether they’re used correctly or not — especially in the hands of young children who don’t understand that they can hurt themselves or someone else very badly,” Joe says.

Sparklers may seem relatively tame, as fireworks go, but they burn at nearly 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt glass. Small children should never be allowed to handle them.

“There really is no safe age for handling sparklers or fireworks,” Joe says. “But small children may not know to hold one at a safe distance. Sparklers can cause eye injuries as well as serious burns.”

Over the last few years, the number of people treated at UC Irvine Medical Center for injuries related to fireworks has decreased as all but eight Orange County cities have banned their sale. In 2013, the medical center had two fireworks injuries compared with nine related to fire rings.

So far this year, the medical center has had one fireworks injury, an intoxicated young man who leaned over a professional-grade firework while lighting it on June 16. After undergoing emergency trauma surgery for a torn chest wall, fractured ribs and injuries to a lung and pulmonary artery, the 18-year-old was treated in the intensive care unit before he was released eight days later.

Men and boys suffer the lion’s share of injuries due to fireworks — 74 percent in the 2012 study period. That’s no surprise to Chakravarthy, who knows he’s lucky to have had no lasting damage from his firecracker encounter.

“Young teens and preteens, especially boys, just love that excitement of science in action,” he says. “You think you’re invincible as a kid. With fireworks, that’s a potentially lethal combination.”

Learn how to stay safe with fireworks ›

Last July 4, Chakravarthy trashed some firecrackers he’d been given. Instead, he and his pediatrician wife took their four-year-old twins to a public Fourth of July fireworks display in their Irvine hometown.

“My kids were disappointed,” he said, “but parents really need to protect their children.”

— Kristina Lindgren, UCI Health Marketing & Communications