Playing with fire - UNC doctor warns of firework danger

June 27, 2008 — Think twice before picking up that box of sparklers at the grocery store – and don’t even give the Roman candles or firecrackers a second look.

“They are neither safe nor sane,” said Dr. Bruce Cairns, a burns specialist with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine and medical director of the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals.

His comments echo the motto of the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), whose Web site calls fireworks the riskiest consumer product.

What’s worse, said Cairns, an associate professor in the medical school’s surgery department, is that children are most often injured by firework-related accidents.

“We tell kids not to play with lighters, not to play with fire, but it’s OK to play with this? It just doesn’t make sense to us,” Cairns said. “It’s really unclear what benefit there is to using a pyrotechnic device as a toy.”

The American Burn Association reports that close to 10,000 people suffer from fireworks injuries every year. According to the NFPA, the risk of fireworks injury was two-and-a-half times higher for children between the ages of 10 and 14 than for the general population.

Cairns said the statistics don’t lie. Every year several people are admitted to the Jaycee Burn Center and many others are treated in the emergency department after the Fourth of July for fireworks-related burns. “It’s always kids, and more males than females,” he said.

The most dangerous fireworks are also the most common. NFPA figures show firecrackers, sparklers and Roman candles accounted for more than 50 percent of all fireworks-related injuries in 2006.

These so-called “household” fireworks can reach temperatures exceeding 1,200 degrees – several hundred degrees hotter than a match flame. The intense energy that creates the exciting effect of a firework or sparkler translates into very high temperatures and bad burns, Cairns said.

“People are just not aware of how dangerous they really are. If they knew, they wouldn’t want to take a chance with it,” said Cairns. Even though the data is compelling, Cairns thinks awareness of fireworks danger is not at the level it needs to be.

“Don’t buy them, don’t play with them, don’t light them,” is the best advice Cairns said he can give.

Most towns have good professional fireworks displays and Cairns suggests families attend these for their annual Independence Day festivities. “Leave it to professionals. Make it a community affair,” he said.

While Cairns is reluctant to give any tips for at-home fireworks displays because of the high risk of injury, he said the Jaycee Burn Center does have some advice for those who cannot live without a few sparklers at their backyard barbeque.

  • Only adults should light fireworks. It sends mixed messages when kids are normally told not to play with matches and lighters, but are given permission to when it comes to fireworks.
  • Always light fireworks in a wide-open space, not near homes, dry grass or other objects that could catch fire.
  • Always have a water hose available when lighting fireworks to extinguish any fires that may start.
  • Never attempt to re-light fireworks that have not exploded – they may do so in one’s hand or face.
  • Know how to treat a burn should an injury occur. Cool the burn with cool water (not ice), wrap in a clean, dry dressing and seek medical attention.
  • Never mix fireworks and alcohol.

For more about the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center, visit

School of Medicine contact: Ginger Moore, (919) 966-3367,
News Services contact: Patric Lane, (919) 962-8596,