The Spectacle Blog

Man Blows Arm Off: Not An Argument Against Consumer Fireworks

By on 7.5.10 | 9:40PM

The Internet was abuzz Monday with the news that a Long Island, N.Y., resident lost his arm in a Fourth of July fireworks mishap:

Grim-faced relatives yesterday told a critically injured Long Island dad that doctors wouldn't be able to reattach his left arm -- which he had blown off with illegal fireworks. . . .
Smith had been trying to shoot one of the explosives from a makeshift launcher in front of his Fairview Avenue home in Islip Terrace shortly before 6 p.m. Saturday when it fired into his shoulder, authorities said. . . .

To anyone familiar with fireworks, the key phrase there is "makeshift launcher." Another story clarifies the situation slightly:

A man blew his left arm off after illegally using fireworks Saturday evening in Islip Terrace, Suffolk County police said. Eric Smith, 36, was shooting mortars out of a three-foot-long metal tube . . .

This story caught my attention because, as the world's greatest pyro-dad, I've shot thousands of consumer fireworks mortar shells, which are no more than 1.75 inches in diameter and certainly not powerful enough to blow off anyone's arm. The launch tubes are usually 12 inches but at most 15 inches long, and are made of either fiberglass, heavy-duty cardboard or, ideally, high-density polyethylene (HDPE).

So this detail about a man being critically injured while firing a shell from a "three-foot-long metal tube" aroused my suspicion, and I was not alone. At the PyroUniverse forum -- a favorite site for fireworks buffs, both amateur and professional -- the "shocking lack of . . . information" in press accounts was noted, and one of the contributors reported:

I went to school with this guy, he graduated a year ahead of me, it was a 4" mortar.

Which is to say that it was a professional-grade shell, classified as a "1.3G" explosive, the possession of which by a non-licensed person is a federal crime. Because New York prohibits consumer fireworks (classified as "1.4G") press descriptions of Smith as using "illegal" fireworks might have left readers with a mistaken impression.

The failure of reporters to make such distinctions are typical of how the press routinely misrepresents fireworks safety issues. While complete data on fireworks-related injuries are unavailable, there is evidence that banning consumer fireworks actually increases risk. Some injuries occur when individuals (usually in states that prohibit consumer fireworks) attempt to rig up their own homemade devices, as happened Sunday near Seattle:

A 64-year-old SeaTac man was sent to Harborview Medical Center with critical injuries on Sunday after being hurt by exploding homemade fireworks, according to the King County Sheriff's office.
A 52-year-old man who lived in the same house as the victim had built a homemade "aerial device" by tying together a bundle of sparklers. The man put the device inside a concrete cinder block to brace it, sheriff's deputies said.
But the homemade rocket "exploded in place, sending pieces of the concrete block in all directions," the sheriff's office said. The victim was standing about 15 feet to 20 feet away and was hit in the head by a chunk of the concrete block. His injury was life-threatening, according the sheriff's department.

Another risk that may result from banning consumer fireworks, as illustrated by the Long Island incident, is that people may resort to obtaining illegal access to professional fireworks on the black market. (Friends tell me that this especially seems to be a problem in New York, for some reason. This may be related to corruption in New York's heavily unionized transportation sector: "It fell off the truck.")

Used as intended and with common-sense precautions, consumer fireworks are in fact safer than your backyard barbecue, as I reported four years ago for Reason magazine:

In recent years, sales of consumer fireworks have skyrocketed, even as injury rates have fizzled.
According to federal data compiled by the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA), while U.S. fireworks sales increased roughly eight-fold from 1976 to 2004—from 29 million pounds to over 236 million pounds per year—estimates of annual fireworks-related injuries decreased from 11,100 in 1976 to 9,600 in 2004.
Fireworks injuries are relatively rare, accounting for an estimated 0.01 percent of annual U.S. injuries, according to an APA analysis which found that injuries from cooking ranges are four times as common as fireworks injuries. . . .

The title of that article is the best possible safety advice, found on the label of every consumer fireworks item sold in the United States: "Light Fuse, Get Away."

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