The Full Story
Fireworks are thought to have originated in China sometime between 200 BC and 800 AD when alchemists mixed compounds like sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate together in the hope of seeking eternal life. The mixture of chemicals caught fire, and so gunpowder was invented. Over time, different applications of gunpowder were discovered, one of those being fireworks. In China, fireworks were originally used to celebrate births and weddings or to ceremonially rid evil spirits and bring happiness and luck to families. It wasn't long before the use of gunpowder and fireworks made its way around the world. Fireworks are now used as entertainment for various celebrations and come in a variety of forms, from large-scale aerial spectacles to small pea-sized snap pops.
It is extremely important that large-scale fireworks are handled by professionals to ensure the safety of those working with them as well as spectators. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) annually reports firework safety statistics and estimates that on average 180 people go to an emergency room every day with fireworks-related injuries in the month around the July 4th holiday. In 2018, they reported five non-occupational firework-related deaths and an estimated 9,100 firework-related injuries treated in ERs. Of the 9,100 injuries, 5,600 (62%) were during a study period between June 22, 2018 and July 22, 2018
Although legal consumer fireworks that comply with CPSC regulations are relatively safe when used appropriately, they should still be handled responsibly to minimize any risk of injury. Most injuries occur from malfunctioning or mishandled fireworks, but other safety concerns to consider include smoke inhalation and unintentional ingestion by children and pets.
Among the wide variety of fireworks are the smaller, hand-held novelty products like sparklers, snake pellets, and bang snaps that are particularly attractive to children and pets. The composition of these varies, and the extent of toxicity largely depends on the amount of exposure, ingredients, and whether they were domestically manufactured or imported. Typical ingredients vary by the type of firework:
- Sparklers: Usually composed of some type of metallic fuel like aluminum, iron, or sulfur and an oxidizer like potassium nitrate, barium nitrate, or potassium perchlorate.
- Snake pellets (domestic): Most products produced domestically contain compounds like ammonium perchlorate, sodium bicarbonate, asphalt, nitronaphthalene, and other carbonaceous material.
- Snake pellets (imported): Can contain ingredients such as mercury thiocyanate, ammonium dichromate, barium salts, arsenic, and phosphorous.
- Bang snaps (snap-its, poppers, whipper snappers, fun snaps, cherry poppers, etc.): Mainly composed of small amounts of gravel and silver fulminate (the explosive component) wrapped in paper.
Several of the compounds in fireworks can be highly toxic if swallowed, causing symptoms ranging from stomach upset to more severe consequences like electrolyte disturbances (such as low potassium from barium salts) and other dangerous multi-organ effects that require immediate medical attention.
If you think someone has been exposed to or might be having an adverse effect from a firework product, immediately call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 or check the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for help. Whether you call or log on, expert assistance is available 24 hours a day.
Kristina Yee, PharmD
Certified Specialist in Poison Information