For fireworks safety, a brightening record

More regulation helps pyrotechnics drop to No. 170 on the 'dangerous products' list.

Mark Loyd wends his way like a kid in a candy store through rows of stacked cases of fireworks in his family-owned warehouse. Boxes of fireworks, bearing names such as Hacker Attack and 911, are shrink-wrapped in a rainbow of bright colors.

But amid the sparkling hues, another thing catches the eye: white labels that caution how to safely use the products.

"The warning labels tell you exactly what to do and what not to do," says Mr. Loyd. "If you have a July 4 picnic, the barbecue grill is probably more dangerous than the fireworks."

Such a comparison may have seemed improbable not too long ago. But in the past decade, the fireworks industry has tightened operations - with easy-to-read warning labels for consumers, and more regulations for producers and sellers. As a result, the number of injuries has dropped with a bang.

Since the American Bicentennial celebration in 1976, when 29 million pounds of fireworks were detonated, consumption (both private and professional) has increased more than fivefold, to 160 million pounds, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. But the number of injuries per 100,000 pounds of explosives has dropped from 38.3 in 1976 - the first year statistics were kept - to 5.4 in 1999, the APA says.

Sparklers, roman candles, and bottle rockets have dropped to a rank of 170 on the Consumer Products Safety Commission's list of injurious products, well below beds and pencils. By contrast, bicycles are ranked No. 2 and are involved in over 50 times more injuries than fireworks.

But not everyone is dazzled by the progress. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, maintains its long-held position that it's "simply unsafe" for citizens to set off fireworks in their backyards, says Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and a primary author of an academy position paper on the subject.

Opponents of consumer fireworks say the decline in the injury rate shouldn't obscure the impact of thousands of injuries that continue to occur, including blindness - and in 1999, 16 deaths.

"The proponents will tell you, it's not the product, its the misuse," says Dr. Smith. "We have good evidence to show that even when used appropriately, these things are unpredictable and unsafe."

Nevertheless, fireworks injury rates have been on a steady decline since as far back as 1966, when the federal government banned explosives like cherry bombs and M-80s. But industry observers generally point to 1990 as a watershed year in safety. That's when the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory was established and began quality testing, much of it at the factories in China where the preponderance of fireworks are made.

At the lab, inspectors check details like fuse burn time, which must be between three and nine seconds. Such a duration gives celebrants enough time to heed the warning-label admonition to "light fuse and get away," but not so much time that they're tempted to come back and see why the fuse apparently went out - and run into trouble.

The testing has meant fewer defective fireworks. And regulation is strict. Loyd says that five years ago in New York a child ingested a "snake," a thumbnail-size novelty which, when lit, creates a volcanic-like ash trail that resembles a snake. The child's stomach was pumped, and the contents showed a trace of arsenic.

Although the boy recovered and the arsenic had no apparent effect, snakes were declared a hazardous substance and banned throughout the US. Warehouses-full had to be destroyed or sent back to China. It was only last year, with an arsenic-free reformulation, that snakes could again be legally sold.

While other industries might balk at such close oversight, legitimate fireworks sellers seem to prize the red tape as much as they do red, white, and blue showers of sparks. "Regulations have been the salvation of our business," says Loyd.

"They have been a tremendous benefit to the industry by eliminating the powerful, the dangerous, and the undesirable. Sales have gone up drastically because people aren't afraid of them anymore," he says.

Approximately two-thirds of the fireworks market is consumer oriented - even though nine states have a complete ban on consumer fireworks, and a few other states prohibit almost everything but sparklers. The fireworks market also includes "display" - the large-scale pyrotechnic shows staged by municipalities on July 4 and by stadiums and theme parks throughout the year.

The overall reduction in fireworks injuries includes displays. Still, safety can be problematic on the displays' manufacturing side. Here in Missouri, one factory exploded June 6 for the third time in 19 months, and authorities still haven't pinpointed the cause.

Almost half of serious fireworks injuries occur to children, according to studies cited by Smith. "These aren't unsupervised children. We know that in 25 percent of [injury] cases, the child wasn't actually handling the firework. They were a bystander."

He adds, "These are unsafe products. In fact, the World Health Organization has called for a worldwide ban on fireworks production, so we're not alone in recognizing this as a large-scale problem. A far safer way to celebrate the Fourth is to enjoy a public display handled by professionals."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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