On July 3, 1776, founding father and co-author of the Declaration of Independence John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail on the adoption of the document: “It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” By “illuminations,” of course, he meant “fireworks,” and Philadelphia obliged him the next year by setting off a bunch of them.
That centuries-old letter comes courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society, but in that specific way, time hasn’t changed much. Because when you think of the Fourth of July, you think of setting things on fire.
And when you set things on fire as a national celebration, things happen. Nasty things, sometimes, because sometimes America can’t handle her explosive devices, even the smaller ones. Most medical associations desperately plea with people to go to professional displays rather than to venture into the world of personal fireworks. But even that can have its … drawbacks.
This goes all the way back to the original fireworks purveyors to the French royalty, the Ruggeris, who according to the Atlas Obscura, were celebrating Marie Antoinette’s marriage to the Dauphin when something went awry. As they quote from Henry Sutherland’s History of Paris, “The positive inconvenience and even danger of a fall of blazing missiles in the midst of thousands of excited and closely-packed spectators, was quite enough to account for the terrible confusion, resulting in many hundreds of fatal accidents, which now ensued.” Death tolls ranged from an official 133 to estimates of 1,200 or more.
[Check out our safety tips for fireworks.]
But current professional shows, while they may not be killing 1,000+ people, still don’t have perfect safety records. In fact, in 2013, a “wild chain of explosions” caused by a chain reaction of accidental explosions at the Simi Valley firework show injured 39 people, according to USA Today. Injuries included “burns and shrapnel wounds, and some [people] were trampled, authorities and hospital officials said. The injured included 12 children.”
USA Today also details more accidents: one in New York in 2008, when “fireworks shells exploded on the ground, and another one launched into the crowd,” causing injuries to five people. And in 2012, a show in San Diego, supposed to last 20 minutes, went off in “its entirety” in “about twenty seconds.” There were mercifully no injuries, somehow. But it goes to show how even professional shows can go awry.
Leaving It To The Pros
But it’s when people decide to take fireworks into their own hands that things go really wrong. According to MarketWatch, Americans now set off one pound of fireworks per adult every year. That’s a wild increase from 2000, when consumption was half that, and 1976 — when Americans only used one-sixth of a pound each. Fireworks prices have plummeted as well, making them, pound for pound, cheaper than hot dogs we grill on the 4th. They’re also legal in some form in every state but Massachusetts now, though many states and municipalities have prohibitions and restrictions on what type you can use and when you can use them.
All of this means that, after a drop in injuries when states began banning them in the 1980s, fireworks injuries are on the rise again. In 2017, 4 out of every 100,000 people suffered a firework injury: about 8,700 people. And 70 percent of those injuries? They happened to men. Most of them also occurred to people between 25 and 44, though there were injuries across the spectrum, from babies to the elderly.
Only 10 percent of the injuries were from firecrackers. The biggest culprit were “unspecified” fireworks, accounting for 3,400 of the injuries suffered. About 1,200 people were hurt by sparklers: more than were hurt by all types of firecrackers combined. This isn’t a shock. According to Medical XPress, sparklers can burn at 1800 degrees, hot enough to “melt some metals,” and are responsible for most injuries to children five and younger.
So what should you do? Use common sense when you set off fireworks. Don’t do anything really stupid, like try to make your own, relight duds, or hold them in your hand. And remember: alcohol and fireworks, and kids and fireworks, don’t mix.