On July 4, 2005, the skies over Staten Island, N.Y., exploded with a fireworks display that stunned those who saw and heard it. Beginning shortly after sundown, Staten Islanders witnessed what one reporter called "an almost constant barrage of color and noise." Some residents said it rivaled the Manhattan fireworks spectacular sponsored by Macy's.
Staten Island's thunderous tribute to America's independence was not, however, provided by a professional crew. The aerial displays were produced by dozens of amateur pyrotechnic afficianados—"pyros," they call themselves—using consumer fireworks that are illegal in New York.
Far from appreciating the free show, many Staten Islanders spent last Fourth of July furiously phoning 911. The Staten Island Advance reported that 14 residents were arrested for fireworks violations, but that wasn't enough for the complainers. "That's nothing. That's absolutely nothing," one angry resident told the local newspaper. "They needed three times as many cops out there."
While the displays were illegal—and annoying to some Staten Islanders—they weren't very dangerous. Local hospitals reported only a handful of injuries. As a safety measure, anti-fireworks laws have no discernible benefit. In recent years, sales of consumer fireworks have skyrocketed, even as injury rates have fizzled.
According to federal data compiled by the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA), while U.S. fireworks sales increased roughly eight-fold from 1976 to 2004—from 29 million pounds to over 236 million pounds per year—estimates of annual fireworks-related injuries decreased from 11,100 in 1976 to 9,600 in 2004.
Fireworks injuries are relatively rare, accounting for an estimated 0.01 percent of annual U.S. injuries, according to an APA analysis which found that injuries from cooking ranges are four times as common as fireworks injuries.
APA officials point out that all consumer fireworks sold in the United States—most are imported from China—must meet safety standards enforced by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The APA, the National Fireworks Safety Council (NFSC) and retailers have also engaged in extensive safety education efforts. In addition to safety labels on each product (e.g., "Place on ground, light fuse, get away") fireworks buyers now usually receive safety pamphlets with each retail purchase.
Beyond CSPC inspections, the federal government has little involvement in regulating consumer fireworks, which are instead covered by a patchwork quilt of state laws. Forty states and the District of Columbia permit some types of consumer fireworks, although most of those allow only "safe and sane" products, such as fountains that spew showers of sparks into the air. Firecrackers and aerial items—such as shells, rockets and roman candles—are only legal in 20 states, mostly in the South and West.
Yet anti-fireworks activists, led by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), still prophesy the rise of a generation of maimed halfwits, victims all of the grasping, growing Firecracker Trust. "Fireworks are too risky for amateurs," warns the NFPA, which last year organized a coalition of 21 groups to demand an outright ban on consumer fireworks. Calling fireworks a "significant public health concern," NFPA President James Shannon said, "Every year consumer fireworks injure and maim our children." Children? The majority of those injured by fireworks are 15 or older—and 72 percent are male.
Activists and public officials continue to incite anti-fireworks hysteria—with the eager aid of a fear-mongering media. Under a headline warning of "More fireworks danger," the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Sentinel recently editorialized about the hypothetical dangers posed by Indiana's recent deregulation of consumer fireworks: "It's hard to say how much more dangerous Indiana will be, but make no mistake: The danger will increase." The paper ominously quoted Fort Wayne Fire Chief Ray Davie: "I'll hope for the best but prepare for the worst."
Americans don't seem to be heeding such warnings. The APA reports that last year, U.S. consumer fireworks sales jumped by 40 million pounds—the largest annual increase since the association began keeping track in 1976. So when the sun goes down on July 4th, folks on Staten Island and elsewhere around the country can be ready once again to dial 911, or just go outside, look up, and enjoy the show.
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