View Point

Friday, February 26, 1999

Bans spur black-
marketing of more
dangerous fireworks

Statistics show injuries increase
when cities ban all consumer fireworks

By Charles P. Weeth


LA CROSSE, Wis. -- The recent furor in Hawaii over the use of consumer fireworks for the New Year's Eve and Lunar New Year celebrations is based more on misperceptions than any real problems.

The anti-fireworks groups have seized upon the upcoming millennium as the time they must exert greater efforts to ban all consumer fireworks, in spite of the fact that injury rates are the lowest in more than 20 years.

Fireworks In a paper I presented to the International Symposium on Fireworks in 1996, I showed that states that ban all consumer fireworks typically have higher injury rates than those that don't. One state that bans all consumer fireworks, New York, accounts for more than 30 percent of the fireworks-related injuries reported to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) every year. Most of these injuries come from large explosive devices like M-80s and the like, which have been federally banned since 1966, not the consumer fireworks that meet CPSC standards.

These illegal explosive devices are made in clandestine factories in homes and garages and sold on the black market. They are cheap and easy to make and, when legal products are hard to get, these are more prevalent and far more dangerous to public safety.

Consumer fireworks use in the United States has quadrupled since the bicentennial in 1976. The fireworks companies have made significant improvements to the quality of their products, setting stricter standards and testing for their products. They also have increased educational efforts, which also has helped.

The CPSC data indicates that misuse is frequently involved when someone is injured. Misuse usually indicates intentional misuse or failure to read and follow instructions, use in conjunction with alcohol or lack of supervision by parents of their children. The data also indicates that less than 1 percent of the injuries involved fireworks that were defective.

Fireworks Scientific Poll Results

Fireworks Online Survey Results

Hawaii Revised Statutes on Fireworks

According to the CPSC, the overall injury rate involving fireworks-related injuries is at its lowest rate in more than 20 years. In 1976 it was 38.3 per 100,000 pounds of consumer fireworks and it is now below 10 injuries per 100,000 pounds. Few other consumer products have seen such a significant improvement.

Having enjoyed a wonderful Lunar New Year in Honolulu with dragon dancers and fireworks of all kinds a few years ago, I experienced nothing that was any larger a risk to public safety than if people had organized a pig-roasting competition. The dragon dancers also know enough to wear eye and ear protection because they dance so close to the strings of firecrackers, something others should also be urged to do if they are close to the fireworks as they go off.

Canada and many European countries permit all sorts of consumer fireworks, including small aerial shells. Their injury rates are significantly less than the United States in part because they don't have the same problem with the big illegal explosive devices and because their fire service helps educate people on how to properly use them. They promote safe use instead of beating the same old drum trying to frighten people about how evil fireworks are.

In most large cities in China consumer fireworks are banned. The reason is they have such poorly constructed and dense housing that any open flame is a grave risk. In spite of the ban, hundreds of millions of Chinese use firecrackers every Lunar New Year. Most of the fireworks they use are of poor quality and made in illegal factories in apartment buildings, which is another problem in itself.

If a totalitarian communist government can't stop its people from making and using fireworks, why is it that so many in the United States fire service believe passing a law in an open democratic society banning them will succeed? It won't and only fools will attempt to do so.

The best way to manage the risks of public use of consumer fireworks is for the fireworks vendors and the fire service to cooperate on an education program on proper use. Print up directions with the basics that can be given out at the point of purchase. Run public service announcements on TV and in the newspapers showing how to use them properly. Talk about the risks just as we do with other things like riding a bike without a helmet or changing the battery in the smoke detector every year.

A truly dedicated fire service will be out and about helping to ensure that fireworks are used properly on New Year's Eve and the Lunar New Year, instead of wagging their fingers with threats of arrest and fines on TV the day before. There will be far fewer problems if they do.

Charles P. Weeth is a licensed pyrotechnic operator
based in La Crosse, Wis. Weeth is licensed to operate
fireworks shows in Hawaii, but has never worked here.

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