This time of year I generally write about fireworks since they are integral to the celebration of Independence Day. I have written some rather technical pieces in the past, so this time I thought that it might be a good idea to write about some safety factors that users of consumer fireworks should observe. Even though consumer fireworks are designed to minimize risk of injury, there is a finite probability that accidents and injuries will occur.
Many of you know how much I enjoy the music of The Who, and I shall work them into this piece. It happens to involve one of the most treacherous pyrotechnic composition, flash powder. In a former life, I was a professional pyrotechnician, and I am still scared of flash powder.
Many accidents involving consumer fireworks are either personal injuries caused by negligence (often alcohol fueled), ignorance, or bravado (also often alcohol fueled). Many other accidents involving these products have to do with unintentional fires cause by firework use, storage, or transport.
I have intentionally left out in this piece accidents happening during the manufacture of all fireworks and the ones that happen during professional fireworks displays. Hardly any consumer is affected by fireworks manufacture, and accidents during professional displays are rare (but they do happen) and hardly ever affect the spectators.
Let us do a thought experiment. Let us imagine that there is a family with children who desire to shoot off (the term that was used in My Little Town when I was little) fireworks for Independence Day. First, we have to go get them. That almost always involves a car trip, and of course the kids will want to go to help pick out what they want. Thus comes the first consideration (other than how much money you want to spend). Where are we going to put them once they are purchased to get them back home?
The trunk of a car is a good place, especially if it is raining. The back of a pickup is OK, as long as it is dry. Just be sure to secure them so that they do not blow out on the way home! Putting them in a trash bag to keep them dry is a VERY bad idea, because trash bags often generate electrostatic charges, and the very act of putting them in and taking them out carries a small but real risk of igniting them. Only use paper or cloth bags (or a cardboard box) to bundle fireworks, unless you happen to be in possession of the rare and expensive electrically conductive plastic bags. The ideal container is a sheet metal box that can be sealed and grounded, but that is sort of beyond what is prudent.
The reason for paper or cardboard is that the cellulose in those materials naturally attract a little moisture and are just a tad bid conductive, so any static charge will bleed off in a short time unless you live in a place like Phoenix where the humidity is extremely low. They are also not very apt to generate static charges, whilst plastic bags are likely to do so. Reputable fireworks sellers rarely use plastic bags.
Wherever you put them in the vehicle, make sure that little ones can not get to them. Little ones like to eat things, and many (perhaps most, depending on what you get) materials in fireworks are quite toxic. Older children are tempted to ignite them, and that can be a disaster in a moving vehicle. I have a funny, personal story about that later.
Now that you are home, where do we store them? If you got them the day that you want to shoot them off, that is not much of a problem IF you make sure that there are no ready ignition sources. Putting them in the closet with your gas water heater or furnace is right out! Once again, keep them away from kids. Also avoid areas of high humidity because humidity is an enemy of fireworks.
If you plan to store them for more than a couple of days, the aforementioned sealable metal can is the best. For small quantities of short (think skyrockets that are long) fireworks, one of those tins that popcorn for Christmas gifts works well. For long pieces (again think skyrockets) or lots of fireworks, an old fashioned metal trash can with a seal of duct tape around the lid and can is ideal. One thing that you should do is either to make sure that the can is touching concrete in contact with the ground (think carport) or that you take a piece of wire and bond the can to earth ground to keep any static charge from building up in it. If kept dry, fireworks can last for many years in pristine condition.
Over time humidity degrades fireworks and pretty much ruins them. They become inert or at least hard to light, and may behave erratically. However some fireworks can, if gotten quite wet, begin to function. Therefore, always keep them dry. There is nothing worse than a container of fireworks going off inside your house! Well, perhaps a few things are worse, but that situation is not good at all.
Now let us further speculate that we are ready to shoot off the aforementioned fireworks. Three things are extremely important. First, be sure and have a safe place. My assumption is that shooting off fireworks is legal in your area. It may well turn out that it will not be legal this year in my area because of a severe heat wave and associated drought. That brings me to point out that you need to be positive that you will not cause a fire with your fireworks. Keep a water hose handy! However, your water hose is not likely to help your neighbor if you catch HER or HIS yard or house on fire. Use common sense and if it is dry, wait until later. I promise you that Dr. Franklin would forgive you for not shooting them off exactly on the forth day of this month!
Second, keep little ones away! They have a tendency to try to “help” with everything (as I am reminded constantly by The Little Girl), and their help can endanger both you, the shooter, and her or him. Have a spouse or a trusted friend tend to toddlers whilst you shoot them off.
Finally, heed the warning with words like “put on ground, light, and get away!” Consumer fireworks, for the most part, are subject to very poor quality control standards. In the US they have to meet maximum explosive limits, but that is only one of many factors. Most consumer fireworks are manufactured in third world nations, and vary greatly in their reliability. In many cases, in my personal experience, the fuzes are notorious for being too slow or too fast. Both are treacherous, because a too slow fuze temps one to light it again, just as it gets ready to take off, and a too fast one needs no explanation.
Next I shall describe some hazardous activities that otherwise responsible fireworks shooters do. Holding Roman candles by hand is a really bad idea. If the paper wall of the tube holding the stars has a weak place, it could fail catastrophically and give you a significant burn. Roman candles are typically considered safe, but they are not without risk.
One would think that sparklers would be safe as long as you do not grab hold of the lit part or the hot wire after one has burnt out. This is not true, and I learnt it the hard was before I became a professional pyrotechnician. One time years ago I was lighting the steel wire kind for my three boys. I decided to light three of them at once and just made a bundle of them and lit the ends. As soon as they ignited, the flame shot down the space in the middle, severely burning my hand. I later learnt that the burning rate for pyrotechnics that produce gas is greatly accelerated when pressure builds up, and the little channel that I provided allowed enough pressure to accumulate that the burning rate was increased by orders of magnitude. Light only one at a time!
Holding firecrackers whilst lighting them is a bad move. Firecrackers are produced in such huge quantities that they are very unreliable, in particular the fuzes. Because of consumer protection laws, US firecrackers are apt to do a whole lot of damage, but having one go off in your hand is still not cool. Since 1976 the charge of flash powder in firecrackers has been limited to 50 milligrams, so modern firecrackers are more like what used to be called ladyfingers. However, there exist bootleg firecrackers that greatly exceed this limit. Do not take chances, because with some of the more powerful bootlegs it is possible to lose fingers or even a hand. After going through what I have recently with the nerve damage in my arm (which is resolved now), be assured that you do not want to lose a finger or hand.
Bottle rockets are another concern, but actually their reputation is worse than the reality. The bulk of the danger with them is their unpredictable flight path, that may take them to areas that might catch fire. By taking proper precautions (in particular not using them when conditions are very dry) the fire danger is pretty much not a factor. I have seen only one injury caused by a bottle rocket, and that was when poor unfortunate soul had one blow up near his eye. I have a lot of experience with them, and no one that I know has ever been injured. The poor soul was a young man around 20 or so, three sheets in the wind, at the emergency department when we had to take one of the boys there around Independence Day.
When I was younger we used to have bottle rocket wars. Two person teams would disperse in the pasture behind the house. One team member was the shooter and the other was the loader. Everyone wore eye protection. The loader would insert a bottle rocket into an aluminum tent pole and light it, and the shooter would aim for one of the other teams. Because bottle rockets are so erratic, there were rarely any hits. We tried to space the teams out so that the report would be around where the other teams were. The most serious injury that we ever had was some superficial burnt spots on clothes.
Never light bottle rockets and throw them by hand by holding onto the end of the stick! The delay trains on them (the pyrotechnic composition that separated the lift charge from the report charge) can be very short, and it is possible for one to report when it gets about at eye level. If you MUST throw them my hand, NEVER lift one in front of your face unless you are wearing eye protection.
Finally, never get close to a new kind of firework after lighting it. Years ago, I bought a couple of ones that were essentially rocket propelled tank looking things made of cardboard and I lit the fuze. As soon as I lit it, the whole thing exploded in my face ( I was wearing eye protection) and made my ears ring for over an hour afterwards. The superficial burns on my face were not serious. The hearing damage probably stays with me, but I must admit that I have very good hearing. That is genetic, I guess, and a result of not firing tens of thousands of shotgun rounds with no hearing protection.
The bottom line is common sense. Never shoot off fireworks around small children unless someone else is watching them, because you can not concentrate on both. Never shoot them towards animals. Animals are particularly frightened of fireworks and my father would not let me shoot them around his bird dogs for fear of making them gun shy. If you have animals that are scared of them, consider going somewhere else to shoot them or bring your animals inside whilst you have fun.
It is a bad idea to shoot fireworks into water. The materials in them have toxicity towards fish. As a matter of fact, it is not a good idea to breathe too much smoke from fireworks because of a couple of materials. The oxidizer in some fireworks in potassium perchlorate, and perchlorate is an iodide mimic and has been linked to some thyroid disorders. Not all fireworks contain perchlorate, but since there are no labeling requirements you can not tell. Green colors are often produced by barium salts, and barium is quite toxic.
I fear that I have made this sound worse than it is. Millions of people use fireworks every year safely, but accidents can and do happen. If you follow the guidelines that I have laid out here, it is extremely unlikely that injury will occur. By far the greatest danger is from fire, so keep in mind that hazard because it can happen remotely from where you are, either from one of yours going wayward or by someone else’s striking your area.
As I mentioned earlier, it is so hot and dry here in the Bluegrass that it is doubtful that the professional display will take place this year unless we get some rain betwixt now and Wednesday. However, some dimwits are shooting off consumer fireworks that include some fairly large rockets and mortar pieces. Sparks and glowing embers from those are very likely to cause fire under these conditions.
Well, you have done it again! You have wasted many more einsteins of perfectly good photons reading this illuminating piece. And even though Chief Justice Roberts realizes that we all see what he did by calling the penalty a tax when he reads me say it, I always learn much more than I could possibly hope to teach by writing this series. Thus, keep those comments, questions, corrections, and other feedback coming. Tips and recs are also appreciated greatly. I shall stick around tonight as long as comments warrant, but likely will leave for a while to visit a certain someone and be back later. I shall return around 9 PM Eastern tomorrow for Review Time.
Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith