Since it’s too dangerous — even for firefighters — to blow up a watermelon to show the perils of fireworks, Olathe, Kansas, Fire Department officials Tuesday did some grilling instead.
They lit up a sparkler, the kind thousands of kids will play with on the Fourth of July, and touched it to a hot dog, which in this demonstration stood in for a hand or foot, leg or arm.
The sparks instantly charred the hot dog, leaving black burn marks.
And, it sizzzzzled.
“Sparklers can burn at about 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. That is almost four times your oven temperature when you bake your bread,” said Dr. Dhaval Bhavsar, medical director of the Gene and Barbara Burnett Burn Center at The University of Kansas Health System.
Surprise, Mom and Dad. Sparklers seem like child’s play. But when it comes to the most dangerous Fourth of July fireworks, blowtorch-hot sparklers often land near the top of the list.
Last Fourth of July, sparklers contributed to nearly half of the injuries to 35 people treated by the KU Health System.
“That’s just a brief touch,” said Olathe Assistant Fire Chief Mark Wassom after showing how quickly the sparkler burned the hot dog. “Folks wave them around and might hit somebody else or hit themselves.
“This particular variety also shoots out pretty hot sparks, and you can see them falling there on the block. Those will burn your clothes and skin as well.”
But the most dangerous fireworks of all?
A University of Washington study in 2017, the first to look at which fireworks cause the most serious injuries, named shell-and-mortar fireworks the most dangerous. They caused 40% of all fireworks injuries that led to hospitalization of 294 patients studied, and 86% of all fireworks injuries to adults.
Such injuries were mostly to the hands and eyes, including worst-case scenarios — amputations and permanent blindness. Add disfiguring burns and scars to the face, too.
Love of fireworks runs deep in Missouri and Kansas, though most communities in the metro prohibit them.
In 2019, Missouri outranked every other state by spending more than $51 million on fireworks, according to an analysis of U.S. trade census data by insurance site Value Penguin. Missouri shipped in $8.34 in fireworks per resident, it said; Kansas was third at $5.53 per person.
Every year, fire departments and health officials put out safety messages and use shock-and-awe demonstrations about the dangers of fireworks. They counsel people to have “designated shooters,” knowing that people will drink and light up.
They advise leaving the fire power to the pyrotechnics pros, but they know that doesn’t happen because thousands of people land in emergency rooms across the country every Independence Day.
The Washington researchers noted that people think of fireworks injuries as minor, not a big deal and don’t take them seriously.
“I think that it is just so much part of our culture that people want to celebrate the holiday and they always think that this is the way to do it,” said Dr. Hoda Tavalali, an emergency medicine physician at North Kansas City Hospital.
But Tavalali has seen “really horrendous fireworks injuries.” Take last year, for example.
One man who bought illegal dynamite “blew it up in his hand, and his hand was completely pulverized into bits and pieces,” she said.
Another man got drunk and fell asleep with a lit firework in his hand. It burned his hands and legs when he dropped it in his lap.
Bhavsar warned that children will continue to find fireworks stashed around the home for the next month or so, so he and his burn unit colleagues will be treating injuries even after the Fourth.
He told of one young child who found a mortar in his dad’s collection after the Fourth of July, lit it up in his hand “and essentially the child lost his hand,” he said.
“Is this the norm? No. But does it happen? Absolutely we see this,” he said. “It obviously pains us to see. That’s what bothers me. This is a devastating potential these injuries can have. There’s no way to fix it. A blown-off hand is not something that can be put together.”
Physicians who have seen this damage first-hand draw a hard line when it comes to fireworks.
“Unless you’re a professional, I surely don’t think you need to light off fireworks,” Tavalali said. “There’s so many different venues around the city where you can safely watch fireworks displays done by a professional.
“We don’t know where all these fireworks are being manufactured. They don’t go through a strict testing policy, so we just don’t even know how safe they are. So I would just get rid of them for the common population to use.
“Fourth of July, as emergency medicine physicians, is one of our least favorite days to work.”
Last year after the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory, a Kansas City man died from a “catastrophic” head injury when he tried to light commercial-grade fireworks in an improvised mortar and one exploded. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
“One of my first mentors in my professional career was injured by a mortar,” said Wassom. “And he was a licensed shooter for a fireworks show.
“He was hit in the face by one of these mortars … caused permanent damage. He lost his eye so he has an artificial eye. It was a bad deal.”
Bhavsar said if he was going to be “the Grinch of the Fourth of July,” he would ban mortars outright. Tavalali agreed.
A shell, a ball of aerial explosive, is loaded into a tube — called a mortar — and launches into the air when lit.
“Growing up doing fireworks myself and enjoying it, but then seeing the devastating injuries from it, I feel like if we take the mortar out of the combination of fireworks people can do, we can still have enough fireworks to be available to enjoy the color and the sound of it, but without the risk of significant injury that mortars can do,” said Bhavsar.
Mortars are not intended to be held in the hand. But the University of Washington study found that most mortar injuries happened when people held them in their hands to launch them.
Mike Spencer, a Kentucky commercial pilot for 17 years, was left with two misshapen hands when he did just that.
in 2015, he lit the fuse of a mortar, held it above his head, “and it detonated in the tube, in my hands,” he describes in a YouTube video.
He lost the ring finger on his left hand, and surgeons replaced his blown-off thumb with a toe. The blast also severely injured the thumb on this right hand and blew off his index finger and tip of his middle finger.
It might not be as powerful as a bomb, “but this mortar is the blast that is packed with so much power,” said Bhavsar. “So if it happens in the hand, it’s definitely going to cause some absolutely devastating injury.
“And I keep using the word ‘devastating’ because when we see it, that’s what it seems like. Someone losing a finger, having the whole hand kind of torn open from this.”
Last year Tavalali treated a man who “was trying relight a dud that exploded in his hand,” she said. “If it doesn’t light, do not relight it. Do not relight those duds.”
Wassom said some of the most dangerous fireworks he has come across are homemade, the ones jerry-rigged by people “trying to make them bigger and better.” he said.
“A lot of folks will tinker around and think it’s fun to take stuff apart and make something different. But that’s incredibly dangerous. You have no idea what it’s going to do.
“A lot of the most severe injuries we’re going to see are likely from that kind of thing.”
To show what sparklers can do to clothing, Olathe fire officials touched a lit sparkler to a white sweatshirt made of 100% polyester. It melted the fabric instantly.
“Where that fabric melts, that can actually melt to your skin,” Wassom said.
In 2019, sparklers were the leading cause of fireworks injuries to children younger than 5, according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission.
One 3-year-old “was playing with a sparkler that his mother had lit for him. He twirled it around and burned himself,” the commission reported.
“I don’t think a lot of mothers and fathers understand that,” Tavalali said.
They probably don’t know either, she said, how hot sparklers can get — as hot as volcanic lava by some estimates, and hot enough to melt gold, Tavalali said.
Adults “just give them to their children. They give multiples to their children,” she said. “You’ve seen that before where a kid has several sparklers in their hands and they burn down pretty low and sometimes those stems are not as long as they should be.”
Sparklers themselves are not the risk, said Bhavsar.
“It’s just that many a time it’s the little kids doing it. A row of kids are standing next to each other and doing sparklers and one kid just suddenly turns … and that sparkler is gonna cause burn to the person next to them,” he said
“If the kids are doing it, make sure the parents know that it’s a high-risk activity and parents remain involved and make sure that kids are being safe.”
DON’T PUT ICE ON A BURN
Here are four things never to put on a burn: lard, butter, mayonnaise and ice.
Yes, don’t put ice on a burn.
“If you hold ice on burned skin for longer, it will cause additional damage because now you are freezing the skin, and long-term freezing can cause additional skin injury,” said Bhavsar.
Use cool water (tap water is fine) — never ice water — to cool down the burned area, he said. “The idea is to cool it down to make sure the heat doesn’t penetrate deeper layers,” he said.
Cover the burn with a loose bandage, a clean dishcloth or non-adherent sterile gauze, anything to keep it clean and protect it from further contamination.
If your clothes catch on fire, remove them and anything else stuck to the skin as soon as possible.
And, if you burn your hand, remove your jewelry, Tavalali said.
“People don’t realize how quickly your hands will swell with inflammation,” she said. “You don’t want your wedding ring to get cut off, and we have to do that several times. We hate doing it.
“Make sure to remove your jewelry immediately if your hand is injured.”
DON’T POINT FIREWORKS AT EACH OTHER
Safety advice for using fireworks from the Missouri state fire marshal that bears repeating:
— Tie back long hair, and don’t wear loose fitting clothes when shooting fireworks.
— Light them one at a time.
— Never carry them in your pocket.
— Don’t. Light. Fireworks. Indoors.
— Keep water close at hand in case of a fire or to douse spent fireworks.
“Something that can help, I know it’s kind of dorky, but safety is dorky, consider wearing safety goggles,” said Tavalali. “If you lose an eye, that’s a big life change.”
Something else that can help: Soak spent fireworks in water overnight, Wassom said. Put them in a metal — not plastic — container.
“A lot of these materials have paper and wood in them and it might still smolder even after you’re done using it. Whether it’s a simple sparkler or something bigger, a fountain, we just recommend you put it in a bucket with water,” he said.
“Just let them sit. There’s no rush.
“The past couple of years we’ve had a couple of house fires that were due to improperly disposed of fireworks. They put them into their plastic trash container, it smoldered for a little while and a few minutes, even hours later, we’ve got a house fire with fire burning up the side of their home.”