Nothing says patriotism like fireworks bursting over a crowd-filled park on a July evening. For most Americans, going out to see fireworks on the Fourth of July is a time-honored tradition.
But smoke in the air and eye injury from fireworks can leave lasting damage. Sparks from fireworks can ignite brush fires. For some, hearing explosions over their heads is traumatic.
“We encourage you to be patriotic, be out with your family, put up your flag, but understand how dangerous fireworks are,” said Heather Heinks, spokeswoman for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
Heinks warned that tiny particulate matter left from exploding fireworks can be inhaled and then enter the bloodstream and that it easily bypasses the body’s natural filter system. Material from exploded fireworks can cause wheezing, shortness of breath, watery eyes, dry throat and aggravate other respiratory conditions.
Particulate matter is defined as an airborne mixture of solid and liquid matter and can be composed of dust, smoke, dirt or soot. Heinks also warns that exposure to particulate matter is linked to heart attack, stroke and long-term respiratory conditions.
Smoke and particulate matter are more localized when backyard fireworks are used, so the effects are greater.
“You’re essentially smoking out your neighbors,” Heinks said.
Smoke isn’t the only hazard. Fireworks-related injuries account for nearly 10,000 emergency visits every year, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says.
“It can happen to anyone,” said Dr. Philip Rizzuto, a spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Rizzuto said he sees a lot of fireworks-related injuries, most coming from people using smaller, locally bought fireworks.
“The smaller ones are the ones people look at and think ‘This one is small, this one isn’t going to hurt me,’ ” he said. “I think there’s a misconception of what is a firework. A firework can be something small like a sparkler or a popper.”
Sparklers are still dangerous, he said. Kids often run around as they hold them, and those sparks can get into kids’ eyes.
It can happen to anyone.
Dr. Phillip Rizzuto, spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, about eye injuries
Fireworks-related injuries can range anywhere from minor cuts and burns to more serious eye injuries.
In one case, Rizzuto said, a man was hit in the eye with a fountain candle. He had thought the candle was extinguished and had come closer to look at it when it exploded. The man had to undergo several surgeries, including a corneal transplant.
Any time an eye injury occurs, Rizzuto said, vision can be seriously affected. In some cases, fireworks can cause blindness.
“Blind as in they can’t see anything, blind as in the eye can be destroyed,” he added.
Safe and sane
Legal fireworks look a lot like illegal fireworks, Fresno Fire Department said. In the wrong hands, they can be just as dangerous.
At a fire safety demonstration on Tuesday, the fire department showed how legal fireworks, marked with the state fire marshal logo, can start grass fires just as easily as illegal fireworks.
Fire officials also stressed the importance of lighting legal fireworks correctly. Putting fireworks on another surface, like a table or ladder, makes it illegal, and violators can be fined.
The Fire Department responded to more than 300 calls last Fourth of July, 66 of which were fire calls. Five were residential/work fires that caused substantial damage.
The Fire Department also warned about sparklers, noting that sparks can ignite grass or brush.
Rizzuto, Heinks and the Fire Department all recommend the same thing for staying safe this Fourth of July: See a professional show. Smoke and material from fireworks have more time to dissipate, and professionals know how far away guests need to be to be safe.
If you do plan on using smaller fireworks on the Fourth of July, there are some things you can do keep yourself safe.
Wear eye protection. Treat fireworks with respect, even if you think they’re extinguished. Keep a 5-gallon bucket of water nearby, and soak used fireworks overnight before tossing them in a trash can.
Fireworks can do more than physical harm. The unexpected sound of fireworks can remind combat veterans of gunfire and explosions, triggering post-traumatic stress disorder.
Military with PTSD, a nonprofit aimed at helping veterans and their families deal with the effects of PTSD, helps deliver informative yard signs to veterans who can be affected by loud fireworks. These signs ask neighbors not to quit fireworks entirely but to warn veterans beforehand in order to keep everyone as safe as possible.
The signs are given at no cost to the veterans, but the nonprofit accepts donations to help cover costs.
Last year, 12 veterans in Fresno and surrounding areas got the signs.
Safety and fire concerns have encouraged cities to think about other options for a fireworks show.
In 2012, the air district attempted to entice several counties to consider a safer, less smoky laser show with a grant to help cover the costs. The Hanford Sentinel reported that Hanford came close to replacing fireworks with lasers, but the costs to run an entertaining show would have been more than initially budgeted, even with the air district’s grant.
Last year, wildfire concerns prompted Bass Lake to swap its yearly fireworks show for a laser show. The show was set up on the water, which Katherine Marlow thought was a better show for boat owners.
“It would have been better if it was later, or we could see the lasers better,” she said. Marlow works at Miller’s Landing, a resort in Bass Lake.
“It was also with music. If you were right there, you could hear the music,” she said.
Adam Starechesky, a supervisor at Miller’s Landing, wasn’t present for last year’s show but heard feedback from guests.
“Some people were pretty excited, because so many people were so worried about wildfires, but some people just wanted to see the fireworks, so they were pretty disappointed,” he said.
Starechesky said the lack of fireworks didn’t deter visitors, and they still had a busy day. Lake levels are higher now, so more people will be out on the water, he said.
“I think it’s going to be exciting this year,” he said.
Bass Lake is back to fireworks for the Fourth. Currently, there are no laser shows planned in Fresno or surrounding counties.
Firework Safety Tips
- Do not try to relight fireworks. Soak extinguished fireworks in a bucket of water overnight.
- When lighting fireworks, make sure people are at a safe distance.
- Never light fireworks in a container.
- Check fireworks instructions for storage instructions.
- Observe local laws.
- Never position a body directly over fireworks while lighting.
- Don’t experiment with home-made fireworks.
- Altering or changing legal fireworks is recognized as illegally using fireworks, and violators can be fined.