They're dangerous and illegal

| 29 Sep 2011 | 08:54

Fireworks should be left to the pros, doctors and police officers say, By Pamela Chergotis Chester, N.Y. — Commuters in Orange County, N.Y., may have noticed a billboard for a fireworks “superstore” in Matamoras. This sign, showing colorful streamers fanned out against the night sky, may inspire people to include a spectacular grand finale in their Fourth of July party plans. But all fireworks — even those little sparklers many older people recall fondly from their childhood — are illegal in both New York and New Jersey. Ron Regar, the temporary manager of the Keystone Fireworks store in Matamoras, said his store does not ask buyers to show they have a permit before selling fireworks. Paradoxically, the only restriction applies to Pennsylania residents, who are not permitted to buy many of the products he sells. Pennsylvania law allows the possession and use of many of the fireworks banned in New York and New Jersey. But Pennsylvania residents may shop only in one section of the store, which is limited to fireworks legal in Pennsylvania. Residents of all other states may buy whatever they wish, he said. “It’s a very confusing law,” admitted one senior Pike County law enforcement official. Keystone Firework’s Web site ( offers a page of safety tips. But about the legality of fireworks, it says only: “Follow your local and state laws regarding the possession and use of fireworks, and use good common sense when using fireworks.” Prohibited for use in Pennsylvania are all of the hand-held, fuse-ignited devices designed to make explosive noises. This includes but is not limited to firecrackers, skyrockets, roman candles, aerial fireworks, or other fireworks of like construction, and any fireworks containing any explosive or flammable compound. Pennsylvania law permits sparklers, toy “cap” pistols, or other devices that are not hand-held or that contain .25 grains or less of explosive compound. Toy “carbide” cannons, which mix calcium carbide, and weigh less than 1/10th ounce and water in the reservoir of the cannon, are also permitted. To listen to local law enforcement officials and emergency room doctors, no fireworks are safe. The innocent-seeming sparklers reach temperatures of 1800 degrees Fahrenheit — “equivalent to the amount of heat in a blowtorch, enough to melt gold,” said Dr. Joanne Magro, an emergency room physician and chairman of the board at Orange Regional Medical Center. The hospital sees about 50 to 60 cases a year of injuries caused by fireworks, she said. Sparklers cause more injuries than all other fireworks combined, she said, and fully half of those injuries happen to children under 16. Most dangerous are those M80 and M100 cherry bombs, Dr. Magro said. “Bundled together, they will give you a government-grade explosive,” she said. In cities like Middletown, it’s mostly teenagers acting on their own who get hurt, Dr. Magro said. In suburban towns like Chester or Goshen, most of the injuries happen at family backyard parties, she said. Dr. Ed Orlando is the director of emergency medicine at Bon Secours Hospital in Port Jervis, the hospital closest to Milford, where some fireworks are legal without a permit. Dr. Orlando said the emergency room sees a few patients a year, “usually teenagers doing silly things, like lighting fireworks in their hands.” Second-degree burns and injuries to the hands are the most common injuries, he said, followed by injuries to the eyes and also to the ears, which can be hurt by the loud blast. At another emergency room, Dr. Orlando has seen fingers blown off cleanly by fireworks. Doctors and police officers we asked stressed it is not only misuse by handlers but defects in the fireworks themselves that cause problems. Fireworks purchased in previous years may also become defective during storage, they said. Ernest Reigstad, chief of police in Sparta, N.J., said many of the injuries he’s seen happen when a firework does not go off after it is lit. Someone will go over to the firework to see what the problem is and pick it up. The little bit of air that gets under the firework when it’s picked up will be enough to set it off — right in the person’s hand, he said. “When the story [of an injury] is out there, it slows things down for a while,” he said of fireworks use in his town. He agrees that people underestimate how powerful even small firecrackers can be. Someone who had one go off in his hand described to him the feeling: “It’s like having your hand on a block of wood while someone is smashing down on your fingers with a hammer as hard as they can.” In his experience, most injuries happen to children with sparklers. But in the case of bigger explosives, like firecrackers, it’s the adults who get hurt, he said. Most injuries happen at family parties with adult supervision, where adults have bought the fireworks themselves, he said. Dennis Marsh, the police chief in Goshen, said the Fourth of July — and the third and the fifth as well — is a particularly busy time for his patrol officers. During this time, town officers are constantly responding to complaints about fireworks. “It’s the majority of calls all day long,” he said. He said he has just arrested someone in possession of $75 to $100 worth of fireworks. If someone has more than $100, he said, it is assumed those fireworks were intended to sale, which makes the crime more serious. A former state trooper, Marsh said he has seen the damage fireworks can do. “People think that setting off fireworks is a victimless crime until that ambulance pulls up,” he said. Anyone who wishes to dispose of fireworks must proceed carefully. Chief Reigstad said he’s had people drop off fireworks at the police station after realizing they weren’t legal. The Sparta police will explode the fireworks out in back of the police station or bring them to the Picatinny Arsenal when they are exploding old ordnance. People who come forward are admitting to a crime, Reigstad said, but he would rather they do that than try to store or dispose of explosives themselves. For information on the proper disposal of fireworks, call your local police station. David Hulse contributed to this story.