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Fireworks Safety Tips Avoid Injuries from Fireworks

The Bottom Line

When used responsibly, fireworks are a fun way to celebrate with friends and family. Unfortunately, serious injuries, poisonings, and fatalities can occur when they are mishandled, unintentionally swallowed, or when they malfunction. For this reason, it is extremely important to understand the risks and follow safety guidelines when handling them.

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


For More Information

Firework Information Center. Bethesda: United States Consumer Product Safety Commission [cited 2020 May 28].

Fireworks and your pet: tips for staying safe. New York: American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; 2019 Jul 3 [cited 2020 Jun 1].

Fireworks safety. Wilmington (DE): The Nemours Foundation [cited 2020 Jun 1].

Leave fireworks to the experts. Itasca (IL): The National Safety Council [cited 2020 May 15].


References

Davis TL. Pyrotechnic snakes. J Chem Educ. 1940 Jun;17(6):268-70.

Firework Information Center. Bethesda: United States Consumer Product Safety Commission [cited 2020 May 28].

History of Fireworks. Bethesda: American Pyrotechnics Association; 2020 [cited 2020 May 15].

Katz DA. Chemistry in the toy store. 6th ed. Part III: lightsticks, magic sand, magic rocks, liquid crystals, dissolving paper, disappearing ink, flammables, and big bang cannons. 2002 [cited 2020 May 20].

Leave fireworks to the experts. Itasca (IL): The National Safety Council [cited 2020 May 15].

Poisindex System [database on the Internet]. Greenwood Village (CO): Truven Health Analytics [cited 2020 May 29].

PyroData: other compositions-sparklers. [cited 2020 May 28].

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Make sure fireworks are legal in your state before buying or using them.
  • Never try to make your own fireworks or use illegal fireworks.
  • Never throw or aim fireworks toward anyone, and keep them away from houses, trees, bushes, and other flammable materials.
  • Never allow children to ignite or play with fireworks.
  • Never try to re-light or pick up fireworks that have not ignited fully.

This Really Happened

Case 1. A 16-month-old girl was brought to an emergency room after she was found chewing on a firework sparkler the previous evening. Her family reported that she started vomiting 30 minutes after being found with a sparkler and she had a total of 8 episodes of vomiting throughout the night. The emergency physician called Poison Control for recommendations and advice. Although no specific ingredients in the sparkler were known, Poison Control indicated that it likely contained barium nitrate, which is known to cause low serum potassium concentrations. Her serum potassium concentration was measured and she was given an EKG to make sure her heart was okay. Both showed unremarkable results. She was given medication to help with nausea and was watched until she could safely tolerate oral fluids without vomiting. She was eventually discharged to home with no further complications.

Case 2. A father called Poison Control after his 2-year-old daughter admitted to swallowing two black snake fireworks about 20 minutes earlier. The ingestion was not witnessed, but two were missing from the package. At the time, the girl did not have any symptoms. No ingredients could be determined from the packaging. The girl was referred into an emergency room. Poison Control recommended that the ER staff give the girl some oral activated charcoal to help bind up any material still in her stomach. They also discussed concerns for various effects given the unknown composition of the product. It was recommended to place the child on heart monitoring with serial EKG checks and seizure precautions for a minimum of 24 hours to watch for symptom development. Bloodwork to assess for electrolyte disturbances was done serially. The girl remained asymptomatic with normal laboratory findings and EKGs. She was discharged home the following day. Poison Control followed up with her family and was told that she remained asymptomatic.