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An explosive safety lesson

The Baltimore Sun

In a field at Oregon Ridge Nature Center yesterday, a bomb expert attached an explosive device to a stick driven into the ground. Nearby, a rubber hand on a stick was clenched around another device.

The specialist lit the fuse of the device -- called an M1000 -- on the stick. A thunderous boom ripped through the air but the stick remained intact. He ignited the device in the hand, and after a similar explosion, the hand and the stick lay in pieces on the ground.

Fireworks can bring a tragic end to an otherwise happy family event, said William E. Barnard, the state fire marshal.

With the approach of the Fourth of July, the demonstration was given to bring attention to the dangers of fireworks. The event also included a presentation by health care professionals who have treated victims of fireworks accidents.

In recent years, the number of fireworks-related injuries in Maryland has ranged from 10 to 30 annually, Barnard said, but officials believe the actual numbers are much higher because many incidents go unreported.

"Some people go to their family eye doctor or physician, and they don't report the injuries," said Stuart R. Dankner, a pediatric ophthalmologist at the Maryland Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons.

About 60 percent of the injuries occur during the two weeks before and after July 4, said Raymond Wittstadt, a hand doctor at the Curtis National Hand Center in Baltimore's Union Memorial Hospital.

Nationwide, hospital emergency rooms reported treating 10,800 fireworks-related injuries in 2005, according to a report compiled by the National Fire Protection Association in April. That is the second-highest total in a decade, during which time the number of injuries rose steadily, the report said.

Yesterday's event was part of the quarterly meeting between the state fire marshal and fire officials from local jurisdictions across Maryland. M80s and M100s also were used in the presentation, during which a watermelon was blown up and a dress shirt went up in flames to demonstrate the destructive capability of fireworks.

Though yesterday's demonstration employed mostly banned devices, officials warned of the dangers of legal fireworks, too.

"Most of the accidents that occur happen to children who were too young to be dealing with the fireworks," said John Hohman, chief of the Baltimore County Fire Department. "Typically injuries are the result of a premature ignition. People think that only the illegal fireworks are dangerous, but that's not the case."

Maryland law permitted only novelty items such as sparklers until 2001, when the use of ground-based sparkling devices was allowed, Barnard said.

Local jurisdictions can set stricter guidelines than the state law dictates, he said. Prince George's and Montgomery counties and Baltimore City prohibit all consumer fireworks, he said. Harford and Howard counties and Ocean City have banned ground-based sparkling devices, he said.

Although most injuries are caused by illegal fireworks or explosive devices, many accidents occur with legal items such as sparklers, Barnard said.

A 9-year-old boy from Prince George's County was injured Tuesday night when a lit sparkler he placed into his pants pocket ignited several unlit sparklers. The boy's pants caught on fire and he suffered second-degree burns on his legs and minor burns on his hands, Barnard said.

Sparklers account for a majority of injuries in children age 5 and younger, said Mary Louise Z. Collins, director of pediatric ophthalmology at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

"A sparkler has 1,800 degrees of heat," she said. "Young children shouldn't be exposed to that kind of heat."

Wittstadt of the Curtis National Hand Center said he treats between six and 12 injuries a year, ranging from minor burns and blisters on hands to people who lose fingers. Most injuries happen to children age 10 to 14, with and without parent supervision, he said.

In some cases, children are blinded in mishaps with fireworks, said Dankner, the pediatric ophthalmologist.

"The Fourth of July is the scariest time of the year for me," he said. "If I am going to have nightmares about the things I see, this is the time I will have them."

Fireworks safety

Use only fireworks that are legal in your jurisdiction.

The use of sparklers or other novelty fireworks by children should be supervised by adults.

Do not drink alcoholic beverages while using fireworks.

Only use fireworks outdoors.

Follow the directions on the label.

Light firework one at a time.

Do not throw or point fireworks at another person.

Do not light fireworks in a metal or glass container.

Do not try to make fireworks.

Source: Maryland State Fire Marshal's Office

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