THE fireworks that light up the sky on the Fourth of July may be less dangerous to the public this year, according to the latest government statistics.
"Technically the number of injuries is 1,000 less [in 1991] than the previous year," says Albert Maruggi, director of public affairs for the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversees fireworks. "That's encouraging."
The commission estimates that in 1991 about 12,200 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries associated with fireworks. More than half the victims were under 15 years old.
But Dr. John Hall of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), in Quincy, Mass., is skeptical about the government study.
"I'd express a certain amount of caution about overreacting. In the fireworks industry for the last 20 years there's been a general upward trend, interrupted by wild swings [in the number of injuries]," Dr. Hall says.
"You'd have to see a number of years of sustained decline to change your view that the most recent year is anything but a blip in the long-term trend."
Fireworks manufacturers, however, defend the safety record of their product.
Petr Spurney, managing director of Ruggieri-USA, a Washington, D.C.-based company which puts on public fireworks displays for Disney and other theme parks, says professional fireworks are by nature potentially dangerous, but he stresses that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which reulates commercial fireworks, requires safety tests.
"When handled by experienced people, they are safe," Mr. Spurney says.
Even private fireworks displays can be safe, Spurney says. "You can buy in some states ... fireworks which are safe if used with caution as the Consumer Product Safety Commission says.... with adult supervision," he asserts. "Injuries resulting on the Fourth of July are from illegal fireworks not allowed by the commission."
Mr. Maruggi of the Consumer Product Safety Commission attributes the recent drop in fireworks-related injuries to a combination of factors:
* "We'd like to think there is greater adult supervision," Maruggi says, as a result of the commission's public education message sent through schools, fire departments, teachers, and doctors.
* The commission has stepped up its efforts in the last four years to educate manufacturers and importers about US fireworks regulations.
* For the last four years, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has operated a joint program with the US Customs Service that, Maruggi says, "has been very successful in interdicting and examining fireworks as they come into the country."
Under the program, the government has seized 284 million units of fireworks, with a retail value of nearly $25 million.
Federal inspectors check fireworks for several safety features. One of the most important is the length of the fuse. It should be long enough so that a person can get away after lighting the firework. But if a fuse is too long, a user might mistakenly return to the firework - and then have it explode.
Maruggi stresses that even sparklers, which are considered the most safe fireworks, are potentially dangerous. "A lighted sparkler placed on a 100-percent cotton T-shirt is as dangerous as a match," he says. They can reach temperatures of 1800 degrees.
But officials of the NFPA are skeptical about the government's efforts to educate the public about fireworks safety. They have called for a ban on the private sale of fireworks.
"It is not possible to educate the average person to the point where they can safely use fireworks," says Dr. Hall, the group's assistant vice president for fire analysis and research.
"That's what led us to the position of saying you should leave this in the hands of professionals who know what they're doing," he says.