For Marylanders, this will be a golden anniversary Fourth of July. Exactly 50 years ago, this state began observing Independence Day celebrations that were a lot safer and a lot saner thanks to a law passed by the 1941 General Assembly.
Before the legislature banned the sale and use of fireworksmore than 300 persons suffered injuries serious enough to require medical treatment almost every Fourth of July in Maryland. The toll was so large, especially among children, that the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Blindness under the leadership of Baltimore attorney John W. Avirett II launched a six-year campaign to stop the mayhem. He put together a citizens coalition that finally prevailed over the heavy lobbying of the fireworks industry, then as now centered in Cecil County.
Results were dramatic. In 1941, only a dozen injuries were reported. Last year, in a far more populous Maryland, the toll was only slightly above that level due to wider public awareness of the dangers of fireworks and greater public appreciation for big displays staged by professional experts.
Unfortunately, not all states are as enlightened as Maryland. The District of Columbia, Virginia and the Carolinas permit the sale of fireworks that then are brought illegally into Maryland. State Fire Marshal Rocco J. Gabriele has given up efforts to interdict this traffic because the law says his agents cannot confiscate fireworks unless it can prove an intent to use them. Instead, his office relies on the good sense and growing sensitivity of Marylanders and on occasional arrests and confiscations for actual use or intent to sell fireworks.
One obvious loophole in state law permits the sale (except in the city and Montgomery and Prince George's counties) of "golden sparklers" that are supposed to be safe -- and are not. With heat in excess of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, they can blind an eye or set inflammable clothes afire. Other menaces are quarter- and half-sticks of dynamite and "M-80s," one of which blew off fingers of a three-year-old child last July 4.
The nation as a whole has a long way to go before it reaches safety standards set in Maryland half a century ago. The National Fire Protection Association reports that last year hospitalshandled 12,800 fireworks-related injuries, a 28 percent increase over 1989 and many times the U.S. injury toll in Operation Desert Storm.
The message: Don't play with fireworks!