|A Long Road Back|
A story about fireworks in untrained hands.
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2004
by Margie Coloian
Editor's Note: This online article was updated in November 2004.
Stacy Miller of Douglassville, Pennsylvania, was a 22-year-old nurse when a 9-inch (23-centimeter) mortar shell exploded in her face during a fireworks display at a picnic, blinding her for life. The explosion took off part of her skull and her left eye was enucliated (removed) days after the accident because it imploded. She has no sense of smell or taste because the impact caused her sinus cavity to explode. The rehabilitation that followed tells only part of the story of how quickly destructive fireworks in consumers' hands can turn a vibrant life upside down.
The shell involved in this incident was not a legal consumer firework, but instead a display firework device used illegally by an untrained individual. The purpose of this article is to highlight that fireworks of any classification in the hands of anyone but professionals can have disastrous consequences.
"It took off my face," Stacy, now 26, told attendees at an NFPA-sponsored press conference on July 1 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Bravely, she relived the moment the soccer-ball-sized shell knocked her down after traveling more than 100 yards (91 meters).
"I hate fireworks," she says.
The press conference was the second held in as many years by the fireworks coalition NFPA formed with the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2002 to ask the public not to use these devices, most of which are deployed during the Independence Day holiday. At this year's conference, NFPA was joined by nine other fire and health advocate organizations, up from six last year.
Today, the coalition also includes the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American Association for Hand Surgery, the American Burn Association, the American College of Emergency Physicians, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Association of Fire Fighters, and the National Association of State Fire Marshals.
Stacy's remarks began to etch out the long road back to the life she knew. As she began, every reporter was glued to her, eager to learn about the lesser-known side of fireworks, devices once believed to be harmless symbols for patriotic celebration. Safety advocates know better.
"I don't think that serious injury is as American as apple pie, especially when it's avoidable," says Jim Shannon, NFPA president. "We have studied the relevant statistics, looking at injuries and death. For decades, we have known these devices are unsafe."
Since 1910, NFPA has crusaded against the use of consumer fireworks, urging everyone to attend public displays of fireworks put on by trained professionals.
Every year, consumer fireworks maim and kill thousands of adults and children. The day before NFPA's press conference, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued its fireworks injury statistics for 2003, showing injuries to be up from 8,800 in 2002 to 9,300.
In 1999, the last year for which data is available, NFPA counted 24,200 fires caused by fireworks, resulting in 12 deaths and 55 injuries. NFPA has collected the data on fires caused when consumers use fireworks year after year, says Shannon.
While groups such as CPSC offer consumers safety tips for fireworks use, the coalition stands firm in condemning any use of fireworks by the public—under any circumstance.
Shannon continued by pointing out the legal ages for buying fireworks in some states.
"In certain states—among them Texas, North Dakota, Mississippi, and Arkansas—children as young as 12 are permitted to buy these things—without parental permission," he says. "And if you think that's bad, Tennessee will let your 10-year-old buy them."
Also speaking was Virginia State Fire Marshal Ed Altizer, representing the International Fire Marshals Association (IFMA), who referred to devices from an inert fireworks board, discussing the power of the individual items.
Joseph Wright, MD, MPH, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, who works at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., says that the Fourth of July weekend poses for he and the emergency room "the busiest weekend of the year." In particular, he said, sparklers, which burn in excess of 1,000ºF (538ºC), will injure many children under the age of five. In fact, he said, about half of the 1,500 people injured by sparklers in 2002 were children younger than five years old.
Dr. Stuart Dankner, from the American Academy of Ophthalmology, a pediatric ophthalmologist and Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, grew frustrated with the yearly injury count.
"Why can't we just ban these devices once and for all?" he asks.
After the press conference, the participants went home to ready for the long holiday weekend. The 2004 count was just beginning. The question was just how many would be injured or killed by fireworks this year?
Stacy Miller is adjusting to her new life. But she'll never be a nurse again. She will never be able to clearly see her six-year-old son. She will never be as independent as she once was. All because someone's idea of fun went horribly wrong.
In addition, an estimated 6,800 fireworks-related injuries were treated in U. S. hospital emergency departments during the one month study period surrounding the Fourth of July, 2003 (June 20, 2003 – July 20, 2003). CPSC staff estimated that there were 5,700 injuries during 2002.
CPSC alse reports that injuries to children were a major component of total fireworks-related injuries with children under 15 accounting for almost half the estimated injuries.
According to NFPA statistics, from 1995 to 1999, an annual average of seven people were killed directly by fireworks, and an annual average of nine people died in fires started by fireworks. In fact, based on the amount of time they are used and quantities in which they are used, fireworks pose a higher risk of fire death than any other consumer product used in the United States.
Fireworks damage property, as well. In 1999, fires started by fireworks caused $17.2 million in direct property damage, and fireworks-related fires have caused at least $15 to $20 million in property loss each year in the past decade. On the Independence Day holiday in 1999, fireworks caused more outdoor fires in the United States than all other causes of outdoor fire, combined.
Margie Coloian is the director of NFPA's Public Affairs Division.