Fireworks on the Fourth

29 Jun 2017

By Cheyenne “Cassie” Sonntag, MD MS

Say it with me: the Fourth of July.

Just saying those words fills your mind with fond memories of watermelon, BBQ, and warm summer nights spent with family and friends lighting sparklers and setting off toy caps. It’s a familiar story, relatable to most who read this – but one unfamiliar to me. Sadly, I spent a large portion of my childhood living in locations with strict fireworks restrictions due to dry desert climates. As such, my firsthand experience with fireworks and firework safety has been limited to setting up a proper picnic space in the park to avoid being trampled in the dark while still maximizing one’s view of a public show.

I was determined that this year would be different. My relocation to the lush lands of Central Pennsylvania for surgical residency and a favorable call schedule (about time!) has finally afforded me an opportunity to experience that all-American Fourth of July fireworks fantasy.

Excited for my first Fireworks Fourth, I visited the Pennsylvania State Police website to find out exactly what shenanigans I could pull off within legal limits. To my disappointment, I discovered that state law (specifically Title 35, Chapter 13A) prevents the use of consumer or display fireworks without a municipality permit and purchase at a Department of Agriculture licensed outlet. However, my Summer of Sparklers was saved as further reading revealed that “ground and hand-held sparkling devices”, “novelties” and “toy caps” as defined by the American Pyrotechnics Association Standard 87-1 are actually designated “non-fireworks” and can legally be sold at convenience stores and tent stands.

Wanting to make sure I celebrate appropriately, I spoke with some of my co-residents about their experiences with fireworks to elicit product recommendations. While all expressed very clear favorites- from sparklers to bottle rockets- every person also related a “this one time” or a “just-missed” story as well. From a sparkler resulting in a singed pigtail and new haircut to a bottle rocket misfire that flew directly into a pile of unlit fireworks and sent a whole party ducking for cover, it was clear that even these designated “non-fireworks” could be extraordinarily dangerous. I certainly regret asking the opinion of a friend who incidentally spent the last Fourth of July on “hand call.”

The Consumer Protection and Safety Commission (CPSC) website and their Annual Fireworks Report estimated that in 2015, 11,900 fireworks injuries were treated by US emergency departments. Sixty-seven percent of these injuries occurred between June 19 and July 19, 2015, with children under 15 years of age representing a fourth of those injured. To my dismay, the report estimated that my beloved sparklers accounted for 1,900 emergency department treated injuries that year.3

It became clear to me that that the absolute safest way to enjoy fireworks this Fourth of July would be to once again set-up my picnic blanket and enjoy the public show. However, for those of you for whom the temptation to light a sparkler may prove just too strong, the following are a few resources with fireworks safety advice for all ages that are worth reading:

National Council on Fireworks Safety
National Safety Council

I wish everyone an amazing summer, and a safe and injury-free Fourth of July.

Cheyenne “Cassie” Sonntag, M.D., M.S. is a general surgery resident at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, PA. Born in Colorado, she spent the formative years of her youth in Arizona before earning her B.S. in cell and developmental biology from UC Santa Barbara. Dr. Sonntag attended medical school at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, where she also earned a Master of Science in Global Medicine. She is currently starting her second of two academic development/lab years a Penn State Hershey as a research fellow focusing on surgical simulation and surgical education. Cassie will be spending her Fourth of July once again observing the local public fireworks display, from a safe distance, on her picnic blanket.

Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.

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