Archive for July, 2013

Photo by Sheila Sund

Photo by Sheila Sund

Guess what – it’s the Fourth of July! The temptation was overwhelming to write in honor of our country’s birthday, so… a deviation from disasters to “dumbness”. In my Easter Salmonella article, a stealthy microscopic bug lurked, waiting to banish you to the bathroom. On the Fourth (the entire holiday weekend, not just the day), the blame for damage, injuries and death falls almost entirely on human error and misjudgment. An interesting commentary, don’t you think?

Sparkling Colors in the Night

There is an unusual seasonal species in our state. It’s large, white, and flaps in the breeze. It appears overnight, like a giant mushroom, arriving on June 23, and dying on July 6. It’s the fireworks stand, found on every corner. Some fund-raise for church and youth groups (ironic when you read injury data), but for-profit booths proliferate like weeds. Despite the impressive amount of gunpowder in these tents, the only requirement for supervision (at least in Oregon) is one person over the age of 18 – not the age I’d choose for good judgment! You can’t drink at 18, but you can run an explosion store.

Photo by chotda.

Photo by chotda.

How do so many tents stay in business, let alone make money? How many fireworks do people actually set off in yards and parking lots? The answer is one heck of a lot. The American Pyrotechnics Association reports that consumers (not including big displays) buy between 185-210 million pounds of fireworks every year. Not only that, but it’s a good business venture. Consumer firework retail sales have gone from 284 million dollars in 1998 to almost 650 million in 2012. (A new fundraising opportunity for emergency volunteer groups? Perhaps not the message we want to send.)

Fireworks – A Real Danger to Life and Limb?

Firework safety messages proliferate almost as vigorously as fireworks stands. In fact, there are some health and safety groups who think all fireworks should be banned. After reading a few of their reports, it makes me feel lucky that I’ve survived our occasional driveway display. But just how dangerous are consumer fireworks? Is it worth the worry and hype?

There are roughly 9000 emergency room visits in the US every year for firework injuries – 60% in the 30 days around July 4. It’s pretty consistent from year to year, despite the increasing number of fireworks sold. In fact, the injury rate has dropped from 23 per 100,000 pounds of fireworks in 1980 to 4 per 100,000 pounds in 2010. Either fireworks are safer, people are smarter about use – or both! Of those 9000 injuries, only about 12-15% require hospitalization. Overall I think the risk vs use rate for fireworks is actually quite low – if you use them according to safety and legal guidelines.

Photo by Erica Feliciano.

Photo by Erica Feliciano.

Fireworks and Human Stupidity

65-75% of firework injury victims are male. Is this a sign of male machismo or male stupidity? Or perhaps men just get the job of lighting the fuse more often – the rule at my house. I’ll let you decide on that one. Over a third of the injuries happen to children under 15 – now that’s a bigger concern. In fact, 7% are under age 5! Now we’re venturing toward “stupidity” territory – that of parents! (And I’ve definitely been guilty of this myself!)

Sparklers consistently rank at #1 or #2 for the types of fireworks causing injuries. Under age 4, injuries are almost exclusively sparklers. Did you know a sparkler burns at over 1800 degrees – enough to melt metal? Why do we spend so much time teaching toddlers about matches, fires and stoves (“hot” was my son’s first word), yet hand them blow torches on 7/4, telling them to “be careful”.

In general, fireworks injuries occur from either malfunction or misuse. Malfunctions mean the firework worked incorrectly, and include exploding earlier or later than expected, flight paths in the wrong direction, and launch tubes tipping over (think fountains falling over). Here’s an interesting tidbit: random inspections of imported fireworks show  that almost 1/3rd have too much gunpowder or too short of a fuse. “Made in China” – what can I say? Let the buyer beware!

Misuse is human behavior, and  includes taking apart fireworks (inquisitive minds!), setting off fireworks improperly, lighting them too close to people or to each other, and holding fireworks in your hand. I’d say these all fall pretty solidly in my human “stupidity” category. In fact, a number of firework injuries end up in the Darwin awards.

Only 4-6 people die yearly from fireworks – exclusively from illegal or homemade devices. Here are a few examples of natural selection in action:

Fireworks Dangers Demonstration: 2012. Photo by US CPSC

Fireworks Dangers Demonstration: 2012. Photo by US CPSC

  • A 51-year-old male lit an illegal homemade firework, consisting of a 3.5″ mortar inside a pipe in a metal bucket filled with rocks. When the firework failed to go off, the victim leaned over and looked inside the PVC pipe (a recurrent theme in firework deaths). The device suddenly exploded, throwing him 6 feet. He died from severe head and face injuries.
  • A 17-year-old male created a “sparkler bomb” of 300 sparklers held together by tape. When he tried to place a bucket over the lit device, it exploded unexpectedly, killing him.

Check out the first 50 seconds of the Fireworks: Put Safety in Play video for an entertaining and musical look at firework stupidity consequences.

Come On Baby – Light My Fire

So fireworks injuries are not that big of a concern if you use your smarts. A bigger issue is firework caused fires. Large areas of our country are suffering through catastrophic drought, and our wildfire season is off to an early and tragic start. Despite this, fireworks will cause at least 18,000 fires this year (not including user extinguished fires). We’ll burn down 1,200 structures and spark over 12,000 brush and grass fires, plus a scattering of waste bin and dumpster fires. I live in a semi-rural area, surrounded by trees and fields. The wind picks up every evening around 7 pm.  I tend to spend my 4th with hose and fire extinguisher handy, worrying that patriotic neighbors will set the area ablaze.

Brushfire. Photo by Joshua Smith.

Brushfire. Photo by Joshua Smith.

Some drought affected counties issued temporary firework bans this year, but effectiveness remains to be seen. In some locations, fireworks are still sold despite bans. Vendors claim that people should be able to purchase their stash for other celebrations later in the year when the ban is lifted. Some counties are reluctant to restrict fund-raising sales for non-profits.  Besides, even permanent laws on firework use aren’t enforceable. People simply drive to the next county or state, load up on their favorite explosives, and bring them home. You can’t possibly police this behavior. All you can do is hope that people use them responsibly, in locations that are not prone to go up in smoke, and have water and a fire extinguisher handy.

Don’t Eat the Fireworks

One firework safety hazard I never thought of – ingestion! Poison control centers receive 1000 calls a year about ingestion of fireworks or explosives. Not surprisingly, most are children younger than 6. Pretty firework wrapping looks like candy, and “snakes” apparently look like gum. Firework ingestion is also a pet hazard. Agents used for flame coloration, including phosphorus, barium, and even arsenic, are extremely toxic. Yet another reason to keep fireworks out of the reach of children (and pets)! If ingestion occurs, call poison control immediately before inducing vomiting.

Recalled gas grill - regulator leaks gas. Photo by USCPSC

Recalled gas grill – regulator leaks gas. Photo by USCPSC

The Great Outdoor Cook-out – Another American Tradition

68% of the American population plan to cook outside this Fourth of July weekend. Firework safety information is everywhere, but our grilling tradition does more harm, and not just on Fourth of July. Compared to fireworks, grilling sends twice as many people to the emergency room every year. Like fireworks, most injuries are minor, but a few people die, usually from ignition of lighter fuels or clothes catching on fire.

The proliferation of propane grills has worsened the grilling problem. 67% of Americans now own gas grills, which cause 79% of all grill fires. Fuel itself is often the first thing to blow.

Well duh! Grilling Facts

  • Compared to fireworks, grilling causes only half the number of fires, but destroys three times as many structures. Well duh! You grill next to your house, whereas most of us are clever enough to put a little distance between our house and our fireworks.
  • 57 percent of grill fires on residential properties occur in the 4 months of May, June, July, and August. Well duh! Who wants to grill in the rain and the snow? Well, actually 49% of grill owners grill year round, including a third who routinely grill in the rain and snow. To each their own!
  • Grill fires on residential properties occur mainly in the early evening hours, from 5 to 8 p.m., accounting for 49 percent of grill fires. Well duh! Most people grill for dinner, and 5-8 pm is when we eat. A much more interesting fact is that 1% of grilling fires occur every hour between 1 am and 9 am. Who grills in the middle of the night!?

Why Do Grills Cause Fires and Injuries?

Like fireworks, grills have both malfunction and misuse fires. 35% of grill fires occur from mechanical failure, including leaks and breaks of containers and pipes. This seemed high to me, although it’s not surprising when I think about it. Grills live outside, often year round, meaning continuous exposure to the elements. Even with a cover, there is moisture and widely varying temperatures. It’s probably surprising they don’t fail more often. However, grill recalls occur as well. It’s worth checking out the manufacturer safety record before purchasing a grill.

Photo by Wannes De Loore

Photo by Wannes De Loore

Misuse causes 30% of barbecue fires – human error again (and some outright stupidity). Incorrect use of lighter fluid, matches, and even cigarettes are a recipe for disaster, even without flammable gases. Our tendency for impatience can lead to bad decisions, as in the man with a charcoal grill that wasn’t getting hot “fast enough”. He poured lighter fuel on the lit coals, and suffered fatal third degree burns. A 19-year-old died after using a combination of diesel fuel and gasoline to light his barbecue.

Grill heat is intense enough to ignite near-by flammable objects – it matters where you put the grill. Next to the house or wood railing -not a good choice. 10% of grill fires are caused by flying embers igniting near-by brush or the neighbor’s roof – hibachis are famous for this. And then there’s the classic error of discarding warm ashes and coals in trash or dumpsters.

Experts classify 26% of grill fires as “operational deficiencies” – fancy words for griller inattention (another potential form of stupidity). For example, after you turn on the fuel, ignition must occur immediately, or fuel can accumulate inside the lid, or even worse, pool on the ground (propane is heavier than air). When you finally light it – BOOM! Flames can then track down the tube to the tank – BOOM again!

Stories also abound about people forgetting their lit grill while they go off and shower, or fight with a spouse. Grilling is like driving – it’s not the time for distraction (or drinking – talk about an increase in judgment errors).  Once you start grilling, you need to focus on the process until you turn it off!

Your Greatest Risk on the Fourth of July Weekend

It’s not fireworks. It’s not grilling. It’s not even fires. It’s driving. A 4 day Fourth of July weekend (like this year) is the most deadly weekend for cars. The US averages 400 or more traffic deaths every 4th of July weekend, with at least 150 deaths on 7/4 itself. And that’s not including life-altering brain injuries, fractures, and other injuries with permanent consequences.

Photo by Icarus Kuwait

Photo by Icarus Kuwait

Most fatal traffic accidents occur in the night-time hours, particularly on the 4th itself. Why? Our holiday traditions include parties with extended family and friends, picnics in the park, and firework displays, all involving many people driving home at the same time. Unfortunately, these traditions also involve a lot of alcohol. 50% of Fourth of July auto fatalities involve alcohol (up from 39% at other times). I consider this as my prime example of human dumbness – just don’t drink and drive! It’s also completely self-centered – when you choose to drink and drive, you are basically saying you don’t care about anyone else in your car or on the road.

Staying Safe on the Fourth of July

If you really want to stay safe on the fourth, you could huddle indoors with your family and pets, eat potato chips, and watch old movies – except if neighbors set off fireworks, when you would need to patrol outside with hose and fire extinguisher. But this would be drastic overkill. In reality, the Fourth of July just requires common sense and a “no stupidity” rule.

Use fireworks safely and legally, in a safe area, with water available. Let kids enjoy the show but not take part in lighting or playing with the fireworks, particularly under the age of 5. When grilling, check your equipment, and focus on the grilling, not the party. Add an extra degree of defensive driving, particularly at night, and maybe hang out for a while after the fireworks display before driving home. Most importantly, don’t mix drinking with lighting fireworks, grilling, or driving. Your designated driver should also be your designated griller and firework handler.

Patriotism is great, as are excuses to party and be social. With just an ounce of common sense, you can avoid adding to frightening July 4 statistics in the process!

Stay smart (and safe),

Sheila Sund, M.D.

P.S. Here’s a fractured patriotic song for you, with absolutely horrible rhymes:

Oh say can you see by the grill’s dark red light
what so proudly we bought at Home Depot on sale?
Whose white tank and steel dials shine out through the dim night
While stacked close right beside, fire extinguisher and ash pail.

We’ll party and then, we’ll light sparklers and fountains
Watching kids ooh and aah, as the night they will brighten
Oh say, is your fourth full of fun and excitement?
Just keep yourself safe – a worthwhile accomplishment!

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