Fireworks safety: fun without the danger

Learn from an ER doctor who used to love setting off fireworks. Don't do it. You'll get injured, like he did. Instead, enjoy fireworks this 4th of July from a safe distance.
June 24, 2021

Back when Mike Mitchell was growing up near Boise, Idaho, he and his buddies used to love setting off fireworks.

Among their favorites were “crackling balls,” little circular fireworks that look like marbles with fuses attached to them.

The kids would light the fuses, hold the balls as long as possible, then throw them in the air, so they’d appear like big fireworks, exploding in the sky.

A silhouette shot of people enjoying fireworks from a safe distance. You see heads in the front with fireworks going off beyond them.
Enjoy fireworks from a safe distance. Photo: Getty Images.

One year, when Mike was 9, he held one of the balls too long and it exploded in his hand.

“I was too slow. I got left with quite a few burns and I learned a tough lesson,” said Mitchell who is now Dr. Mitchell, medical director for the Emergency Department at UCHealth Broomfield Hospital.

“I knew better because my dad worked for the National Interagency Fire Center. He fought forest fires and we grew up with Smokey the Bear and were very diligent about putting out our campfires,” Mitchell said.

Learn from an ER doc’s fireworks safety mistakes as a boy

Mitchell still remembers not being able to sleep after that 4th of July because he was in so much pain. He suffered burns over his right hand and arm and all the way up to his neck and back.

This photo shows two boys who are about 5 or 6. They are twins and are dressed up for Halloween. One is dressed as a doctor and the other is his patient.
Mike Mitchell, dressed up as a doctor for Halloween when he was a boy, with his patient and twin brother. Mitchell is now an emergency room doctor. When he was young, he was injured by not following fireworks safety advice. Photo courtesy of Dr. Mike Mitchell.

While Mitchell is a little sheepish now about his past as a fireworks fan, he understands how seductive they can be. Still, he warns people to stay away. As an expert in emergency medicine, he’s seen how dangerous they can be.

“We see everything from cuts to burns to serious injuries,” Mitchell said. “The best way to protect yourself and your family is not to use fireworks at all, especially this year because it’s such a dry year.”

Mitchell also admits that he and his twin brother once set a neighbor’s hay bales on fire when they lit a smoke ball, hit it with a tennis racket and sent it exactly to the wrong location.

“Learn from my mistakes,” Mitchell said.

Fireworks can cause major burns, severe eye injuries

Every year in the U.S., an average of 7 people die from injuries related to fireworks. In 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, more than 11,000 people were treated in hospitals for injuries related to fireworks, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Fireworks safety tips

  • Enjoy professional fireworks shows from a safe distance.
  • Never allow young children to play with fireworks or set them off.
  • If you insist on purchasing fireworks, never buy those packaged in brown paper. They are made for professional displays and pose a danger to individuals.
  • Always supervise children. Sparklers, which many adults assume are safe, burn at 2,000 degrees and are hot enough to melt some metals.
  • Never put your body near or over a fireworks device.
  • Never try to re-light fireworks that haven’t ignited fully.
  • If you are setting off fireworks, be sure they are legal in your area and keep a bucket of water nearby.
  • Many parts of Colorado are at extremely high risk for wild fires this year and have fire bans. Do not take risks that can cause fires. Click here to learn more about bans.
  • Sources: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

Young people, ages 14 and younger, comprise one-third of those who need to go to a hospital. Young adults in their 20s have the highest injury rates, while children under 5 have the second highest rate.

More than two-thirds of patients suffer burns, most commonly to their hands and fingers, while about 9 percent suffer eye injuries.

Dr. Nathan Hamburger, an ophthalmologist in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, said eye safety is important with fireworks because they can cause damage to the eyes resulting in permanent vision loss.

“Injuries can come from high-velocity impact with the eye, the concussive effect of explosions and/or burns to the ocular surface,’’ Hamburger said. “Nearly half the people injured by fireworks are bystanders.’’

Though fireworks are banned in many cities and counties across Colorado, not everyone adheres to the rules. Hamburger said people should avoid high-velocity, projectile fireworks such as bottle rockets, roman candles, mortars and explosive fireworks including cherry bombs.

“If you do choose to use these fireworks always read and follow warning labels, wear safety glasses, never light with people nearby, avoid looking down canisters, never let children play with fireworks,  and never point at other people,’’ Hamburger said.

What should you do if you’re injured by fireworks?

“Immediately seek help at the emergency department. They can determine whether you need to see an eye specialist for further care. Do not rub your eyes. Do not rinse your eyes. Do not apply pressure. Do not remove any objects that are stuck in the eye. Do not apply ointments or take any blood-thinning pain medications such as aspirin or ibuprofen,’’ Hamburger said.This image shows a diagram that helps people decide when to go to an ER and when to go to urgent care. In general, an ER is for really severe injuries, while an urgent care center can help with minor injuries that can't wait for a doctor's appointment.

Dr. George Hertner, chief of emergency medicine for UCHealth Memorial Hospital, said the holiday, like New Year’s Eve, is one of those when “People have too much to drink and make poor decisions. Make sure there are sober adults supervising children.’’

He advised people to enjoy the holiday but “be reasonable. Don’t drink and drive. Take your time if you are traveling, and be very careful at dusk, when people are in the street outside their homes and lighting off fireworks.’’

Hertner said Memorial sees an influx of patients after large July 4th gatherings. Often, people twist an ankle or fall while leaving large celebrations and end up in the emergency department with orthopedic injuries.

Happily enjoy fireworks from a safe distance

After some harrowing experiences as a child with fireworks, Mitchell of UCHealth Broomfield Hospital, now 36, plans to enjoy a concert and a professional fireworks display with his two stepdaughters who are 8 and 6.

“We’ll happily be watching from a safe distance. I’m super cautious now. I don’t do anything stupid like I did when I was a kid,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell attended medical school at University of Washington and did his residency at University of Arizona. He has worked at UCHealth Broomfield Hospital since it opened two years ago. He loves caring for patients in a new hospital close to their homes.

UCHealth writers Lindsey Reznicek and Katie Kerwin McCrimmon contributed to this story.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.