Are there ‘safe’ fireworks? A fire expert says no — and so does this burn victim

This story is part of our year-long series “Are We Safe?” To submit a topic for the series, follow the link at the end of this article.

Leah McCleskey’s life changed the moment the firework landed in her lap.

On July 4, 2018, McCleskey, her husband Jon and their son were sitting on a blanket watching a fireworks display in a field at Hand Middle School in Columbia, SC. Her son, then 4 years old, had left the comfort of her lap just before the packet of explosives dropped into it.

“It had not gone off yet so it basically just exploded in my lap,” said McCleskey in an interview with The News & Observer on Tuesday. She spent six weeks in a burn center in Augusta, Ga., and had eleven surgeries as the result of her injuries. She returned to work part-time at the Richland Library in March, but still suffers from PTSD, and had a hard time with an unexpected pyrotechnics display at a recent Paul McCartney concert.

“I will probably continue to see my therapist for a long time,” she said quietly.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 9,100 people were treated in U.S. emergency rooms from fireworks related injuries in 2018. Children under age 15 made up 36 percent of those injuries. The commission estimates that five people died from fireworks-related injuries last year.

‘Safe and sane’ fireworks

North Carolina law currently only allows what are called “safe and sane” fireworks, like sparklers and glow worms, for public sale and possession. Not that these fireworks are entirely safe: even innocent-looking sparklers can each a temperature of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt some metals according to the Jaycee Burn Center.

Firecrackers that explode or become airborne aren’t legal for private use. But could that change in the near future?

Currently, House Bill 615 and its identical companion Senate Bill 566 are under consideration in the North Carolina General Assembly. The bill’s sponsors want to allow the sale of 1.4g fireworks — like roman candles that contain explosive powder and can leave the ground — to people over age 18.

Kelly Ransdell, regional education specialist for the National Fire Protection Association, said that while HB 615 would provide a firefighters education fund, she believes the risks aren’t worth it — risks that include the higher probability of wildfires and the increased opportunity for underaged people to access those fireworks.

Ransdell pointed to a Washington State study outlined in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons that looked into the relationship between fireworks legislation and injuries. The study found that Washington counties with fireworks regulations had lower incidences of severe injuries from fireworks.

Ransdell shared a letter from Eric T. Wiseman, president of the North Carolina Fire Marshall’s Association, who opposes the proposed fireworks legislation. Any potential increased tax revenues from the sale of fireworks, Wiseman says, “simply do not equate to the real cost of those who’ve lost someone or been injured in a fireworks related accident.”

Leave it to the experts?

Ransdell does not offer advice for using fireworks, because she doesn’t think anyone but experts should handle them. She, along with the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center, simply advise that people watch one of many professional fireworks displays, where fireworks operators have pyrotechnic certification.

However, despite the risks, people are still going to be handling both legal and illegal fireworks on July 4, so here are some safety tips, as the News & Observer has previously reported.

  • Don’t use consumer grade fireworks, such as the ones now illegal in North Carolina.
  • Stay away from amateurs who are setting off consumer grade, explosive fireworks. Go to a professional show instead.
  • Keep kids away from fireworks.
  • Wear eye protection when lighting fireworks.
  • Store them in a cool, dry place, out of reach of children.
  • Point fireworks away from people, animals, cars, buildings, and other flammable materials.
  • If the firework doesn’t pop, don’t try to relight it.
  • Keep animals in the house, away from fireworks displays. They may panic and try to run.

McCleskey and her family will be heading across the state boarder to North Carolina for the July 4 holiday. She said she wanted to be somewhere quiet, where at least neighbors wouldn’t be setting off fireworks in the street. Fireworks are legal in some parts of South Carolina.

“They’re bombs,” said McCleskey. “I feel like regulations and policies should be more strict and require a license to handle one.”


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Jennifer DeMoss is a science intern at The News & Observer through a fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Jennifer, an anthropologist with training in forest ecology and botany, is looking forward to covering the latest research in the North Carolina area.