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On Independence Day, Think Fireworks Safety First

Experts say leave the July 4 celebrations to the pros

FRIDAY, July 4 (HealthDay News) -- Fireworks can be breathtaking spectacles, creating glittering showers of sparks and earth-rumbling booms that thrill people for miles around.

Backyard fireworks can produce their own thrills, but mainly for young boys who love to blow stuff up. And therein lies the danger.

"The natural predisposition for kids is to make the biggest bang in the most cleverly engineered ways possible," said Dr. Tim Stout, an ophthalmologist with Oregon Health & Science University Hospital in Portland. "They try to set up big explosions, and those are the kinds that can cause serious injury."

The truth is, experts say, fireworks are only truly safe when someone else -- preferably a trained professional miles from you -- is setting them off.

Fireworks caused an estimated 9,200 injuries that required treatment in U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2006, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Seven out of 10 of those injuries -- approximately 6,400 -- occurred during the one-month period surrounding the Fourth of July.

The damage isn't limited to life and limb, either. In 2004, fireworks started an estimated 1,600 structure fires and 600 vehicle fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association, resulting in 20 injuries and $21 million in direct property damage.

Groups like Prevent Blindness America and the National Fire Protection Association take a hard line on fireworks, telling people there's no safe way to use them yourself.

"We believe the public should avoid the use of consumer fireworks and just enjoy public displays of fireworks performed by trained professionals," said Lorraine Carli, spokeswoman for the National Fire Protection Association.

The majority of fireworks-related injuries are caused by three of the most commonly used devices, Carli said. Small firecrackers, bottle rockets and sparklers lead to more than 70 percent of fireworks injuries in the United States each year.

"There are a number of consumer fireworks that people think are relatively safe, when they are not, like sparklers," Carli said.

Sparklers burn at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. In 2006, sparklers caused 1,000 injuries. For children under 5, they accounted for the largest number of estimated injuries, about one-third of all injuries for that age group, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

When it comes to injuries, males are three times likelier to be victimized, a gender distinction that leaves doctors shaking their heads. "A big bang to young boys is a cool thing," Stout said. "I think that's probably pretty common. It's kind of human nature."

To prevent boys from being boys, Stout recommends that parents who buy fireworks securely lock away any leftovers -- or better yet use them all up.

"The worst injuries we see are people who have a bunch of firecrackers left over, and kids get into them," he said. "Anything can be combined together and cause a bottle to explode, or some other sort of explosion. Just use them up."

Hands are the part of the body most often injured by fireworks, followed by the eyes.

Approximately half of the estimated sparkler injuries involve hands and fingers, the same pattern as firecracker injuries, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. About half the bottle rocket injuries involve the eyes, and almost 30 percent involve the head, face or ear.

While hands usually suffer burns, the eyes can be injured in one of three ways by fireworks, Stout said.

They can be burned, of course. But eyes also can be harmed merely by the concussion from a firework.

"When a firework explodes close to the eye, the shock wave causes damage," Stout said. "It can cause the lens to dislocate. You don't have anything go in the eye, but the percussive force causes damage."

Eyes also can be injured by penetrating debris from a fireworks explosion, or by a flying firework like a bottle rocket.

If you're a parent insistent on buying your own fireworks to set off, Stout urges you to at least put on some safety glasses. "I've had eye patients come to me whose vision was spared because they were wearing safety glasses," he said.

He recalled one case in which two brothers were standing near each other when a firework went off in their faces. One brother lost an eye. "The other brother, even though he sustained more of the blast, the glasses protected his eyes," Stout said. "He was fine."

Or, better yet, just go see the show at your local park.

"Clearly, the safest fireworks to watch are the biggest and most beautiful," Stout said. "You watch them from a distance, and they're just gorgeous."

More information

To learn more about hazards posed by fireworks, visit the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

SOURCES: Tim Stout, M.D., Ph.D., ophthalmologist, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland; Lorraine Carli, spokeswoman National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, Mass.; U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

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