For an enjoyable Fourth, put fireworks safety first

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— "It just wouldn't be a 4th of July celebration without fireworks at home." Unfortunately, that belief will keep hospital emergency departments busy all across America this week. One of the earliest uses of fireworks was in warfare, which should be an indication of the potential dangers involved.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, fireworks were responsible for 6,300 emergency visits over a one-month period bracketing the July 4th weekend last year. Sadly, 40 percent of the victims were 13 or younger, and 10 percent of those children suffered permanent damage, such as loss of an eye, finger or hand. Hand and arm injuries were most common, followed closely by eye injuries. Many of the injured were bystanders, and a full three-fourths were teen-age boys ages 13 to 15.

For a safe, happy Independence Day celebration, keep these other tips in mind: Ignite fireworks outdoors in a clear area away from houses, dry leaves or grass and flammable materials. Follow local community and state laws regarding fireworks, including any seasonal bans due to dry conditions; Older children should only be permitted to use fireworks under close adult supervision. Do not allow running or horseplay; Never experiment. Do not take fireworks apart or mix anything with the contents; Dispose of burned sparklers appropriately; touching or stepping on the hot wires can cause painful burns; Never ignite fireworks in a glass or metal container; Light one firework at a time, and set unused fireworks away from firing area; Keep a safe distance, and be sure other people are out of range before lighting fireworks; Have a bucket of water nearby for emergencies and for dousing fireworks that don't go off; Do not try to relight or handle malfunctioning fireworks. Soak them with water, then bury them.

For those still wanting to set off fireworks after reading those statistics, Steamboat Springs ophthalmologist Dr. Mark Helm and the American Academy of Ophthalmology feel that a basic safety review could be helpful.

"We've been very fortunate to have few injuries locally, but the potential for a serious eye injury is always there," Helm said. "Nationally, about a third of all fireworks injuries cause permanent eye damage, including visual loss, blindness or even removal of an eye."

There are five major types of fireworks, including firecrackers, sparklers, fountains, Roman candles and rockets, also called bottle rockets. Of those, rockets carry the most potential danger, due to their erratic flight paths and potential to blow up prematurely as they are being lit. The bottles or cans from which the rockets are launched also can explode, showering fragments of glass or metal.

Bottle rockets are illegal in Colorado, but they nevertheless find their way into most fireworks arsenals.

The seemingly innocuous sparkler, a favorite of the younger crowd, is sometimes an accident waiting to happen.

"Although sparklers seem like the safest fireworks, they're really dangerous for young children because they burn at up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit," Helm said. The shorter the arm that holds the sparkler, the closer the sparks are to that child's eyes.

Christine McKelvie is public relations director for Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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