Numberscruncher: Fireworks and the Fourth of July

Written by Current Events, Numberscruncher

John Adams started it.

In addition to cowriting the Declaration of Independence and his role in the American Revolutionary War, Adams wanted American independence to be celebrated in a big way. “It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

It’s that time of year, when the pyromaniac hiding inside every American comes out and starts shooting off fireworks. We carry explosives across state borders, sign false statements, and violate local fire codes in order to celebrate our violent overthrow of our colonial oppressors. Whether it’s simple “snakes” and sparklers or giant military-fantasy cakes with names like “Untamed Retribution,” we want to meet the Founding Fathers’ imperative to oooh and ahhh on the Fourth of July.

Fireworks are a decent business, too. The American Pyrotechnic Association reports that fireworks sales totaled $940 million in 2008, with 186.4 million pounds of explosives sold to the consumer market alone.

Despite the close relationship between fireworks and the celebration of our nation’s violent founding, many people want to ban fireworks because they’re dangerous. They are, of course — but how much is a matter for debate.

The American Pyrotechnics Association, like any good trade organization, has data showing that between June 22 and July 22 of 2007, more children between the ages of 5 and 14 were injured on skateboards than by fireworks. And the number of injuries per 100,000 pounds of fireworks consumed was 3.7, down from 38.3 in 1976. Is that so terrible?

The good epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seem to wish that John Adams and his ilk had lost to the English so that none of this fireworks stuff would have ever happened. Despite the warnings, though, the CDC’s own data sheet shows some less dire statistics.

Most injuries are due to firecrackers, which people light and throw; sparklers, which are often used by young children, who get burned when they touch them; and homemade fireworks, which may be made in a garage and sold out of the trunk of a car (not by a member of the American Pyrotechnics Association) or assembled from regular fireworks by someone who’s had a little too much beer and excitement while honoring the self-evident truth that all people are created equal.

The cost of these injuries seems to be unknown. The CDC fudges on the data, citing the $21 million in fireworks-related property damage that was reported in 2004 but not mentioning any injury data. It also doesn’t break down how much of that damage was accidental and how much was malicious. One number often bandied about is that fireworks injuries lead to $100 million in medical expenses each year, data that’s extrapolated from incidents in Marion County, Indiana, between 1986 and 1991, but it seems to be more of a guess than anything.

I’m not big on backyard fireworks myself, but many people I know and love would run me over if I were standing between them and the checkout counter at Phantom Fireworks. The love of seeing stuff blow up does that to people, maybe more than their love of country.