Fun in fireworks can, and often does, backfire Union Memorial, fire officials hold demonstration on hospital grounds.

June 25, 1991|By Edward L. Heard Jr. | Edward L. Heard Jr.,Evening Sun Staff

While fighting the Redcoats in the War of Independence more than 200 years ago, thousands of American patriots were killed.

As the Fourth of July approaches, fire officials say they don't want Marylanders to relive the suffering of their predecessors by celebrating the holiday with fireworks that threaten life and limb.

"Fireworks are dangerous," said Bob Thomas, deputy chief state fire marshal. "Why risk a few seconds of fun for a lifetime of pain, suffering and disfigurement when something goes wrong?"

Thomas, with other fire officials and Union Memorial Hospital staff, set up a demonstration in front of the hospital yesterday to inform the public about the hazards of holiday fireworks.

Some noisemakers traditionally purchased by fun-seekers are actually lethal explosives, fire officials said.

For example, quartersticks, which look like miniature sticks of dynamite and contain about 235 grains of explosive powder, are often used by farmers to uproot tree stumps, Thomas said.

"That's certainly enough to blow a person's hand or head off," he said. Such explosives, he added, have no useful entertainment value, especially to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Of the 12 injuries attributed to fireworks over the Fourth of July last year, one stands out in the memory of Allen Berkowitz, a hand surgeon at Union Memorial.

A 3-year-old girl's right hand was blown apart by a quarterstick. Berkowitz said two of the child's fingers have been reconstructed, but more surgery is required.

"All patients are sorry, but unfortunately it's too late," he said. "It's possible to reconstruct hands and extremities, but they're never as good as they were before the accident."

Most people do not understand the dangers they face when they handle fireworks, Thomas said. Many are harmed when they pick up fireworks that don't react immediately after they are lit.

"Fireworks are extremely unstable," he said. "When you light them you don't know whether they'll go off in one second, 10 seconds or at all."

Even sparklers, traditionally considered harmless, burn in excess of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, fire officials said. They caused five of last year's 12 holiday fireworks injuries.

Children can easily obtain sparklers because they are the least regulated of all fireworks, officials said. Although they're illegal in Baltimore City and Prince George's and Montgomery counties, they're readily available elsewhere.

Thomas said legal sparklers contain no hazardous chlorates or percholorates and are marked with a gold label. But he added, "Just because they're legal, doesn't mean they're safe."

Thomas said any device with more than 180 grains of explosive powder is illegal without a license under Maryland law, and anyone who sells or uses fireworks and explosives must be licensed by the state fire marshal.

Blanche Ridley, 54, of the 2700 block of Tivoly Ave., attended the demonstration because she's been looking out for kids playing with fireworks in her East Baltimore neighborhood for the last 15 July 4 holidays.

She said some youths put firecrackers into other youngsters' back pockets to startle them. Others throw exploding fireworks onto buildings or inadvertently damage cars with sparklers.

"Parents should be more strict," Ridley said. "These little kids shouldn't use fireworks if they're unsupervised. I'm not there all the time to keep an eye on them."

In 1990, about a third of the fireworks-related injuries involved children 5 to 14 years of age, most them males, according to the fire marshal's office.

Fireworks injuries have actually declined in Maryland since 1985, a decline that Thomas attributes to public awareness of the danger. But fireworks injuries are on the increase nationwide.

Last year, hospital emergency rooms handled 12,400 fireworks-related injuries, a 28 percent increase over the number reported in 1989, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Because fireworks are popular around July 4, police in Maryland and other states with tight restrictions occasionally stop and check suspicious trucks coming in from jurisdictions that do permit fireworks, including the District of Columbia, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina, officials said.

Maryland law calls for a fine of up to $250 for possession of illegal fireworks and $1,000 for sale or distribution.

Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Allen Ward recalled one incident last year in which officials confiscated 100 cases of fireworks from a Baltimore County home after receiving a tip that fireworks were being sold there.

Thomas said people who enjoy the noise and flash of fireworks should take in a legal public display on July 4. Information about such public displays can be obtained from the State Fire Marshal's office by calling 1-800-525-3124.

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