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Fireworks hurt 5,000 in weeks around July 4

Marciano Young, 5, plays with a sparkler before the fireworks show in Saginaw, Mich., Monday evening July 4, 2011. The U.S. celebrated the 235th anni...
Playing with sparklers may be a July 4 tradition, but consumer safety experts warn that they can heat up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit: as hot as a blow torch.Matt Dixon / AP

Fireworks injuries sent more than 5,000 people to U.S. emergency departments in the 30 days surrounding the Fourth of July last year, with firecrackers, aerial explosives and homemade devices causing most of the harm, consumer safety experts said.

About 60 percent of the estimated 8,700 people treated for injuries in 2012 were hurt between June 22 and July 22, according to new figures from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Six people died, all men, including a 17-year-old Arkansas boy who taped together about 300 sparklers to make a so-called “sparkler bomb,” which exploded unexpectedly when lit. Killed was Justin Blake Smith of Buckner, Ark., according to local law enforcement reports.

“These figures represent more than numbers; they represent the lives of real people who have been affected well beyond the Fourth of July,” said CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum, who released new injury data on Wednesday, a week before the patriotic holiday.

More than half of the 5,000 injuries in the month surrounding July 4, 2012 involved burns to the hands, head and face. About 1,000 of the reported injuries involved sparklers and bottle rockets, fireworks that are often considered safe for young children. The total number of treated injuries was down slightly from 2011.

“There’s no such thing as completely safe fireworks,” said Dr. Andrew Sama, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. “A few minutes of well-intentioned fun can result in lifelong disabilities.”

A sparkler, for instance, can burn at about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit – as hot as a blow torch, Sama noted.

About 200 people a day go to the ER with fireworks injuries around the July 4 holiday, Sama said. Most of the injuries occur when fireworks malfunctioned, resulting in dangerous flight paths or debris. Others happened when people lit fireworks close to another person, held burning fireworks in their hands or playing with lit or used fireworks.

CPSC officials, working with U.S. Customs and Border officials, tested shipments of imported fireworks in 2012 and found that about 30 percent violated the Federal Hazardous Substance Act, or FHSA. At the national level, the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration also works to combat importation of illegal fireworks.

“Fireworks are explosives,” Protecting the public means making sure that our safety regulations work when these explosives are being transported,” said PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman.

Officials know they’re bucking longstanding tradition, but they warn U.S. consumers to stick to fireworks shows instead of home displays. They urge families to obey fireworks laws, to supervise children closely and to use common sense during July 4 celebrations.

“The safest and only thing you should do is watch a professional fireworks display managed by experts who have proper training and experience handling these explosives,” Sama said. “As always, we’ll be ready to treat you, but we don’t want to have to see you in the ER.”