Americans love the Fourth of July.
It’s a time to celebrate the summer with family, friends, and fireworks, but for a physician working in an emergency room during the holiday, it usually means you drew the short straw.
“We always dread being the one on call for the Fourth of July,” said Dr. Greg Sobol, a surgeon at Beaumont Hospital Royal Oak.
Being a hands and upper extremities surgeon for more than 20 years, he has spent more than a few holidays in the operating room working to repair the damage caused by a fireworks mishap.
“It’s like a bomb explosion,” Sobol said. “You salvage what you can.”
Unfortunately, in the past 15 years, Sobol and other ER surgeons have seen an increase in the number of people injured by fireworks.
A new report by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) found a significant upward trend in fireworks-related injuries. Between 2006 and 2021, injuries with fireworks climbed 25% in the U.S., according to CPSC estimates.
Last year, at least nine people died, and an estimated 11,500 were injured in incidents involving fireworks.
“It’s imperative that consumers know the risks involved in using fireworks, so injuries and tragedies can be prevented,” said Alex Hoehn-Saric, CPSC chair.
As the numbers show there is a significantly increasing trend in the fireworks-related injury estimates from 2006 to 2021, according to data from the CPSC report. In 2006, 9,200 injuries were reported. By 2013, the number bumped up over 10,000 where it has remained every year other than 2018 when 9,100 were reported. Last year, 11,500 injuries were recorded.
The largest spike appeared in 2020, when an estimated 15,600 people were seen for fireworks-related injuries at hospital emergency departments, reflecting the highest estimate seen in more than 15 year. According to the CPSC, this spike was likely due to public fireworks displays being canceled and more people turning to consumer fireworks to celebrate. Also evident by the 26% decrease in emergency department-treated injuries possibly stemming from the increased reopening of public fireworks displays that were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
• Of the nine deaths, six were associated with firework misuse, one with a mortar launch malfunction, and two were associated with unknown circumstances. Ages of the victims ranged from 8 to 55.
• Young adults 20 to 24 years of age had the highest estimated rate of emergency department-treated, fireworks-related injuries in 2021.
• The cases in 2021 also showed an estimated 1,500 injuries associated with firecrackers and 1,100 involving sparklers.
• In 2021, the parts of the body most often injured by fireworks were hands and fingers (an estimated 31% of injuries) along with head, face, and ears (21%), legs (15%); eyes (an estimated 14%); trunk/other regions (10%); and arms (8%).
• The most common type of fireworks-related injury (32%) treated in emergency departments last year were burns.
• About 83% of the victims were treated at the hospital emergency departments and then released but at least 15 percent of patients were treated and transferred to another hospital, or they were admitted to the hospital where they faced weeks, months and even years of treatment.
Among the incidents reported last year was a case involving a 6-year-old girl.
According to the CPSC report she was with her family watching another family member set off fireworks. After one device was detonated, the victim turned to her mother with a bleeding mouth. The grandmother took the victim to the garage to assess the damage. Due to the amount of blood, it was difficult to see the injury, so it was decided to take the victim to the hospital. At the hospital she was sedated and given seven stitches to sew the bottom of her lip back and close a hole in her cheek.
She recovered after one month but has scarring to the face and difficulties chewing.
Sobol has had patients who have lost hands and digits.
“These are life-altering experiences,” said Sobol, who recently treated a man for a fireworks injury that happened 17 years ago.
Sobol’s patient is a farmer from Caro, who was farming 1,500 acres and working 40 hours a week at the Michigan Sugar Company before he was injured in a fireworks mishap.
“It was a graduation party for my nephew,” said Jim Matatuszak, who attended the family gathering along with his wife, Julie.
As with many family celebrations fireworks were part of the festivities. Matatuszak, having done several of his own shows, helped to get the fireworks ready. This included putting the mortar fireworks in the ground and following all of the other recommended instructions. Everything went as planned except for one mortar that exploded within seconds of being lit and before he had time to pull his arm back.
The blast blew a hole in his right arm.
“I caught it and held it tight against my body. I knew I was in trouble,” said Matatuszak, who despite his injury was able to stay conscious and alert.
He yelled for someone to get his pickup and then headed to the hospital four miles away, followed closely by Julie in another vehicle. The local hospital did what they could including an examination to make sure he didn’t have any other injuries, then he was transported by helicopter to the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor.
To this day it’s not fireworks that scare him but the sound of a helicopter that triggers feelings of uneasiness and dread.
“I should have called for an ambulance,” Matatuszak said, in retrospect of the injury that required nine surgeries in nine months.
During that time he had to learn how to use his left arm for basic functions like eating, but also for hobbies like drawing and fixing up old cars; a beautiful and newly restored 1933 Willis parked in his yard being evidence of his determination to recover and carry on.
“I built it with my left hand,” he said. “I was mad that I put myself in this position but I wasn’t going to let it stop me.”
The injury to his arm was pretty significant and it’s likely that he’s reached the maximum in terms of any improvement but remains optimistic and encouraged, having found another job he can do at Michigan Sugar.
“You get pretty depressed,” Matatuszak said. “But I think I’m pretty lucky to still be here.”
The dangers of fireworks also include property damage.
According to National Fire Prevention Association data, an estimated 19,500 fires in the U.S. were started by fireworks in 2018, including 1,900 structure fires, 500 vehicle fires, and 17,100 outside and other fires. These fires caused five deaths and 46 injuries to civilians and $105 million in property damage. More than one-quarter (28%) of fireworks fires from 2014-18 occurred on July 4; approximately half (49%) of all fires reported on that day are caused by fireworks.
Mount Clemens Fire Chief Gregg Shipman, who has been a firefighter for more than 25 years, said it’s been a few years since his department has responded to a house fire caused by fireworks.
“A lot of times the fireworks will land on the roof. We had one where the fireworks went through an open window causing a fire inside the home,” Shipman said. “It’s been mostly medical calls related to fireworks and they’ve definitely gone up.”
To help combat the incident rates Shipman’s crew created a public service announcement offering safety tips provided by the NFPA. YouTube videos on how to use fireworks safely can also be found online.
Shipman said fireworks are bigger and more powerful than ever. But just because they’re legal and available doesn’t mean they’re safe.
“You got to know your products and all your safety guidelines,” Shipman said. “Everyone thinks sparklers are safe for kids but they actually burn at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Just to give you an idea of how hot that is: glass melts at a temperature of 900 degrees, wood burns at 575, cakes bake at 350 and water boils at 212 degrees.
“You need to make sure the child is old enough to comprehend the warnings and safety measures that go along with fireworks,” Shipman said.
The person buying the fireworks must also be 18 years or older.
Consumers in Michigan can purchase a variety of consumer fireworks, novelty items and low-impact fireworks. To assure you are buying legal fireworks, look for a certificate from Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), which should be posted prominently in the fireworks store or tent.
In celebration of Independence Day, Michiganders can light off fireworks on their own property (it’s illegal to shoot off fireworks on public property) now through July 4 at 11:45 p.m. Check with your local government regarding any curfews or restrictions outside of that. A violation of a local ordinance could result in a fine of $1,000 per offense.
LARA offers these safety tips to protect lives and property:
• Follow the manufacturer’s directions.
• Have an adult supervise fireworks activities, including sparklers.
• Light fireworks one at a time, then immediately back away to a safe distance.
• Ensure people and pets are out of range before lighting fireworks.
• Light fireworks outdoors on a driveway or other paved surface at least 25 feet away from houses and flammable materials such as dry grass or mulch.
• Keep a bucket of water or a garden hose handy in case of fire or other mishaps.
• Douse spent fireworks in a bucket of water before discarding them in a trash can.
LARA adds users should never:
• Buy fireworks packaged in brown paper or use unlabeled fireworks – they are for professional use only.
• Experiment with or make your own fireworks.
• Allow young children to play with or ignite fireworks.
• Place any part of your body directly over a fireworks device when lighting the fuse.
• Try to re-light “duds” or pick up fireworks that have not ignited fully. (Rather, wait 15 to 20 minutes and then soak it in a bucket of water.)
• Point or throw fireworks at other people.
• Carry fireworks in a pocket or shoot them off in metal or glass containers.
For more information, visit michigan.gov/lara/bureau-list/bfs/fireworks.
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