Fireworks causing fires, injuries cost state half million annually

June 29, 2000

CHAPEL HILL -- Fireworks-related fires and injuries cost North Carolina and its residents almost a half million dollars a year, according to a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study released Friday (June 30).

Total costs likely are significantly higher, researchers say, but they were unable to obtain information from pediatricians, family practitioners and minor emergency clinics that treat less serious injuries. Expenses from loss of work and such activities as increased fire inspections, regulating storage facilities and reforestation also were difficult to collect and assess.

Investigators at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals and the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center conducted the study. It showed that much of the money state residents spend annually in-state on fireworks goes out of state. Justification for the General Assembly legalizing certain fireworks in December, 1993 was that money spent in Virginia and South Carolina would then remain in North Carolina.

"Injuries caused by pyrotechnics are of special concern because they are highly preventable," said Ernest J. Grant, outreach clinician at the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals. "Nobody should get hurt in connection with a holiday designed for fun and to honor the freedoms we enjoy. Our purpose was to look at the impact that legalization of pyrotechnics has had on our state."

For their study, which covered five of the past six years, Grant and colleagues each year gathered information from N.C. fire departments, county fire marshals, hospital emergency rooms and forest rangers. Grant also personally asked vendors at 10 roadside fireworks stands in Orange, Durham and Wake counties about daily sales total and where they were from. Average daily sales were $5,000 during the July 4th week , and all of the vendors said they were from Virginia.

Other researchers involved were Dr. Stephen W. Marshall, research assistant professor of epidemiology at the UNC-CH School of Public Health and the injury research center, and Dr. Michael D. Peck, professor of surgery at the UNC-CH School of Medicine and director of the burn center. Others were Cindy Soule of the N.C. Department of Insurance; Dr. Jo Brickmeyer of the injury center and Martha Waller of the center and the department of maternal and child health.

Repeating a survey they first completed in 1995, the researchers mailed close to 2,000 questionnaires to emergency departments at all N.C. hospitals, many fire officials and others. They followed up with telephone calls to hospitals and fire departments not returning the surveys.

They found that each year, fireworks caused property damage totaling $223,500, $77,000 in fire-fighting costs and $92,000 in damage to forests. Medical treatment costs exceeded $65,000. Most injuries and fires occurred during the fortnights before and after Independence Day, and many involved children.

Illegal fireworks were common, including firecrackers, Roman candles and bottle rockets. Over the five years studied, researchers found 114 serious injuries to hands, faces and eyes. Wire sparklers were responsible for 23 of those.

"A small number of distributors, some of them essentially fly-by-night operators, are making considerable sums of money selling fireworks at this time of year," Marshall said. "Unfortunately, the state of North Carolina is bearing a very significant hidden cost -- nearly $500,000 a year -- treating injuries and fighting fires due to fireworks."

Large community-sponsored firework displays put on by responsible pyrotechnic professionals make increasing sense, he said.

"That means there will be fewer and fewer kids running around in the backyard throwing these things at one another," Marshall said. "Adults also need to be very aware of the message they send to children when they themselves act irresponsibly or carelessly with fireworks."

Nationally, fireworks cause at least $20 million in property damage annually, Grant said, and on July 4th , they start more fires than all other causes of fire combined. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 1998 hospital emergency rooms treated about 8,500 people for fireworks-related injuries. About 40 percent of the victims were children under age 15. Injuries over the last three years, however, were lower than they had been in previous years, a decrease of about a third since 1994.

Injuries range from burned fingers to death, and more than half the damage is to homes. Four percent to five percent of people treated in emergency departments are injured on 25 percent or more of their bodies. Nationally, 70 percent of firework injuries occur between June 23 and July 4.

North Carolina legalized sale of sparklers, explosive caps for toy pistols, snake and glow worms, smoke devices, trick noisemakers and other sparkling devices in December, 1993 to keep state residents from spending their fireworks money elsewhere.

"The main point we want to get across is that both parents and children need to be especially careful with fireworks, which are not toys," Grant said. "Burns are among the worst kinds of injuries in terms of pain, length of healing and cost. Those of us who treat or see burned patients on a daily basis know how terrible these injuries can be."
June 30, 2000 -- No. 356
UNC-CH News Services

Note: Grant can be reached at 919-966-2381, Marshall at 966-1320.

School of Public Health Contact: Lisa Katz, 966-7467.
News Services Contact: David Williamson, 919-962-8596.
Broadcast Contact: Karen Moon, 962-2091.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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