For most Americans, celebration of the nation's birthday on the 4th of July just wouldn't be complete without a fireworks show. Millions of people across the country will close out their Independence Day festivities watching spectacles of color explode noisily in the night sky. Many people also like to mark the holiday with some smaller-scale fireworks in their own backyards -- a practice that often causes devastating injuries. Now there is a national effort to make July 4th an enjoyable and a safe holiday.
On a hot, June day on the National Mall, a man in flame-retardant clothing lit a match under three watermelons which were blown to pieces by an illegal firework called an M-80. It was part of a demonstration by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to show what can happen to people who purchase or manufacture illegal fireworks. Harold Stratton, Chairman of the CPSC, led the nationally-televised demonstration. "Many of the illegal fireworks you see here today have been banned for nearly forty years," Mr. Stratton told those watching. "Yet we still see these devices being manufactured and sold to consumers."
Commissioner Stratton says more than 10,000 emergency room visits were attributed last year to fireworks-related injuries -- most involving children. Many of those injured suffered from burns, lacerations and hand and eye injuries. He says 50% of those injuries were caused by legal, consumer-approved products. "Even sparklers, for example, burn at a temperature of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,100 degrees Celsius). This is hot enough to melt metal and can easily cause third degree burns."
The safest way to enjoy fireworks is to watch a big show put on by a team of professionals. There is something magical about sitting in the dark with a large crowd of people and listening to the collective 'oohs' and 'ahs' every time a new explosion of color appears in the sky.
Felix Grucci, Jr. is Chief Financial Officer of Fireworks by Grucci, a century-old family business and one of the leading fireworks display companies in the United States. On hand for the demonstration in Washington, he talked about the mystique of a fireworks display. "It is a magical transformation of a person's psyche and emotions," he said. "For a 20-25 minute period we can send them into places that they've never seen before."
Mr. Grucci, a former Congressman from New York, believes a well-choreographed fireworks display can be a universally profound experience. "When you look at the night sky and you see the majesty and beauty of God's handiwork, and then all of a sudden that becomes interrupted with man's handiwork and you turn the night sky into a kaleidoscope of color and you marry that color to sound, and all of a sudden you're exciting the sights and senses of an individual, the fireworks have this uncanny ability to be able to transverse age groups, ethnic backgrounds and social-economic levels." He adds, "The richest of the rich can stand next to the most humble of humble and be able to get the same level of firework entertainment."
It's that universally entertaining quality of a good fireworks display that makes private purchases of these explosive devices so tempting, and so potentially dangerous. Fireworks displays provided by licensed operators are legal in every state. But laws vary from state-to-state regarding what consumer firework products may be sold. Firecrackers, sparklers and small rockets are what most people like to buy.
Legal or not, many Americans consider fireworks to be essential to their 4th of July celebrations. Todd Race of Adams, New York, who was visiting the Mall with his family said they enjoy the fun of lighting sparklers in the backyard every July4th. "Sparklers are about all you can buy up around us. But they're illegal in New York." When asked where he purchases those prohibited products, he sheepishly remarked, "At illegal stands."
Some consumer groups have lobbied to make all fireworks illegal. Consumer Products Safety Commission Chairman Harold Stratton believes that by following proper instructions, consumer fireworks are generally very safe. Many would agree that a fireworks-free 4th of July would have disappointed founding father John Adams. Just after the Continental Congress proclaimed the colonies' independence from England in 1776, Mr. Adams wrote this about public celebrations on July 4th: "The day will be the most memorable in the history of America," he predicted. "It will be celebrated by succeeding generations with bonfires and illuminations from one end of the continent to the other, from this day forward, evermore."