For safety’s sake, leave fireworks to the pros

Unfortunately, there will be a spike in burn injuries this week

FOR NEARLY EVERYONE in Massachusetts, the Fourth of July conjures up memories of backyard barbecues, summer fun, and toting a folding chair to the best viewing spot they can find for the local fireworks display. But for dozens of families, Independence Day is a reminder of something else entirely: panicked 911 calls, tearful trips to the hospital, and long, painful recoveries from burns sustained by mishandled amateur fireworks. The injuries caused every year by these products can leave physical and mental scars requiring years of treatment.

At Shriners Hospitals for Children — Boston, we treat children with burns ranging from very minor to life threatening. The pace always picks up around the Fourth of July holiday when kids are around more fire hazards, including fireworks. Our team is here for any child with a burn injury, no matter the time of year, and I am proud of what we are able to do for our patients. Our team includes some of the most accomplished burn and reconstructive specialists in the nation – but the fact remains that for a certain subset of our patients each year, we would not be needed at all if fireworks were left to the professionals.

According to the Massachusetts Office of the State Fire Marshal, a department we work closely with to educate the public on fire safety, 42 percent of fireworks-related burn injuries reported by hospitals in the last 10 years were to children under age 18. Almost 30 percent involved children under age 10.

It can be easy to lose sight of what those numbers represent. At the Boston Shriners Hospital, we see the faces behind the statistics. Those numbers represent terrified children, hysterical parents, and guilt-ridden family members or friends who purchased the fireworks. We see children who are struggling through months of painful rehabilitative therapy or those wondering if they will lose the use of a hand. We see the missed soccer games and dance recitals, lost time from school and organized activities, and the psychological toll a burn injury takes on a family. We do not see statistics. We see kids whose childhoods are punctuated by an avoidable injury.

There are no “safe” fireworks. Most people do not realize that even basic sparklers can burn at 1200 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. The extreme temperature of even this simplest firework can lead to direct deep boring contact burns when touched or stepped on, extensive burns when clothing or hair ignites, and eye injuries when little hot flecks fly off the tip into the unprotected eye.

As parents, we go to great lengths to protect our children from dangers using car seats, bicycle helmets, gun safety, etc.  Fireworks safety should be a basic component of child safety parenting.

It is also important to remember all amateur fireworks are illegal in Massachusetts, even if purchased legally out of state. Periodically, we in the burn care community learn of renewed efforts by some state legislators to lift the state ban on fireworks to boost state tax revenue.  You cannot put a price on the pain and suffering of children, many of whom are innocent bystanders to illegal fireworks accidents.  Our fireworks laws are effective and result in an order of magnitude reduction in the number of injuries seen compared to states without these laws.

Meet the Author
The Fourth of July is supposed to be fun. The weather is good. Many are off from work and the celebrations are lighthearted. Our warnings are not meant to dampen the fun. Our goal at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Boston is always to keep kids safe. Our children look to us to be the example. Let’s lead by example this Fourth of July and leave the fireworks to the professionals.

Colleen Ryan, MD, is a burn surgeon at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Boston. She is an associate surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, and a clinical director at Boston-Harvard Burn Injury Model System.