Celebrating Holidays With a (Safe) Bang

Bastille Day in France. New Year's in China. Guy Fawkes Day in Britain. El Grito de Dolores in Mexico. And, yes, the Fourth of July in America.

Some national celebrations just aren't complete without fireworks. Be it a hand-held sparkler or a mile-wide chrysanthemum in the sky, there's something special about ushering in a holiday with a shower of sparks.

This summer, an estimated 5,000 professional fireworks shows will be held in big cities and small towns across the United States. Total fireworks sales for these shows and the backyard variety, have nearly tripled since the nation's 1976 Bicentennial.

"In 1976," says John Conkling, the executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, "a lot of communities rediscovered what a great community event a fireworks display is for bringing people together and providing a focal point for a day of celebration."

And it's not just the big shows that have surged in popularity. Two-thirds of all fireworks are bought by folks with a penchant for backyard pyrotechnics. For $25 to $100, families are discovering they can put on their own neighborhood display.

The rise in do-it-yourself shows, say experts, is accompanied by an easing of fireworks bans in some places, fewer related injuries, and stricter oversight of fireworks manufacturing.

In 1997, about 8,300 people in the US were treated for fireworks related injuries, slightly higher than a record low in 1996, based on statistics kept by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission and the industry.

One-third of all Independence Day-related injuries stem from using illegal explosives like M-80s and M-100s, powerful devices that, along with cherry bombs, have been banned in all states since 1966.

Federal regulations have made firecrackers "pretty tame" in terms of explosive power, says expert Bob Weaver, limiting them to 50 milligrams of explosive chemicals. Instead of spelling the end of consumer fireworks, such regulations have resulted in an overhaul of the industry. "Sales have gone up each year since then," says Mr. Conkling, citing the effects of better quality control and labeling.

Because about 90 percent of all fireworks used in the US are imported from China, the fireworks industry has also set up its own testing program there.

Fireworks safety, Conkling says, tends to be a greater problem in states where fireworks are illegal (see chart right). In those states, users make their own or buy bootleg explosives. In the rush to light fireworks and not get caught, accidents can occur.

If you're going to put on your own fireworks display, review the safety rules below. A responsible adult should be in charge of all fireworks activities, including lighting all the fuses, according to the National Council on Fireworks Safety, an industry trade organization.

If teenagers are of driving age, they may be able to purchase their own fireworks. Mr. Weaver, the author of a fireworks product guide and Web site (sd.znet.com/%7erjweaver/fireworks.html) still recommends that teens have an adult present when using fireworks.

Before the holiday, Conkling says, parents should discuss fireworks with their children along these lines: "Some of your friends may use fireworks over the holiday, and that's not an activity we [parents] want you participating in without us present. It's up to the parent to decide," he says, "when a child is responsible and mature enough to use fireworks."

Ann Brown, head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, however, says small children should not be given sparklers. These devices burn hot enough to melt gold. In some parts of the US, sparklers are the second greatest cause of fireworks injuries.

If a child shows a real interest in celebrating the holiday this way, Conkling says, "make it a family event.... You can discuss the Fourth of July and Independence Day, rather than just giving the kid a package of fireworks and [letting him go] terrorize the cats and dogs in the neighborhood."

Fireworks Safety Tips:

* Only use legal fireworks and always buy from an established retail outlet.

* Don't use fireworks without responsible adult supervision.

* Observe local laws. If unsure of what they are, call your local police or fire department.

* Light only one item at a time.

* Ignite fireworks in a wide-open area at a safe distance from spectators, buildings, and flammable materials, including vegetation.

* Read the labels and follow the instructions closely.

* Never carry fireworks in your pocket.

* Have a bucket of water or garden hose handy.

* Don't try to relight duds. Douse them and submerge spent sparklers in water, then wait 15 minutes before disposing of them.

* Wear safety goggles when lighting fireworks.

* Never shoot, aim, or throw fireworks at another person.

* Never place your face or body over fireworks. Light them using a long-handled lighter or punk - a stick that burns without a flame.

Sources: National Council on Fireworks Safety and 'Fireworks for Everyone' by Bob Weaver, Burning Sage Publications, 1995

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