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Bombs bursting in hair: The cost — in injuries and property damage — of fireworks in Minnesota

What could possibly go wrong?

With a few exceptions, most consumer fireworks are illegal in Minnesota. That doesn’t stop people from buying them or lighting them off.

But before you cross any state lines this Fourth of July weekend in search of a real fireworks stand (a well-documented phenomenon), get this: the things are dangerous.

In the past 10 years, Minnesota hospitals have reported treating 697 fireworks-related injuries in emergency rooms, an average of 70 per year, according to an annual report on fireworks injuries in Minnesota compiled by the State Fire Marshal Division. At least one person has died since 2006 in a fireworks accident.

The injury estimate is probably a lowball count, said Fire Marshal Bruce West, as it only includes people seen in hospital ERs. Many people don’t seek medical help for burns, or visit non-ER facilities.

Minnesota fireworks injuries by year
An average of 70 people per year are injured by fireworks, according to numbers reported to the Fire Marshal by Minnesota hospitals, but the overall numbers are likely higher than what is reported. This does not include one fireworks-related death that occurred in 2015.
Source: Minnesota State Fire Marshal Division

Bad burns

It likely doesn’t surprise you to hear that it’s this time of year — when neighborhood dogs cower for nights on end as Minnesotans make their own backyard pyrotechnic shows — that’s the state's fireworks injury apex.

“The vast majority of all burn injuries from fireworks occur in the one week period surrounding the Fourth,” said Dr. Bill Mohr, the medical director for Regions Hospital’s Burn Program.

When it comes to bigger fireworks, hand injuries are common, but face injuries happen too, and they’re not pretty.

“We've had people who were bending over, lighting (a firework), and took the aerial round to the face and it pretty much takes all the flesh and muscle off half their jaw,” Mohr said.

Mohr said Regions saw one patient who was hospitalized after lighting a mortar off of his chest.

“They’re made to push against something like concrete so all the force goes out in one direction. If you put (a mortar) on top of your chest … or on top of your head like the widely-publicized person in Michigan,” the mortar erupts in all directions,” Mohr said.

In the Michigan incident Mohr referred to, a 47-year-old man was killed in front of his family when he held a lit mortar and held it on his head, according to the Detroit Free Press. A Minnesota man also died last year after he lit a mortar off of his head.

In the Michigan incident, alcohol was a factor, as Mohr said it often is.

“It's quite frequent that the adults who get injured are drinking, and it's also very common that the kids who get burned are being supervised by people who are drinking,” he said.

It’s not just big bang-type fireworks that cause injuries. Sparkler-related burns are common, too, Mohr said.

Lately, Regions docs have seen an increase in cases where small kids hold multiple sparklers  — a sparkler bomb, Mohr called it.

“Instead of burning from one end to another, (like they’re designed to), it kind of jumps around and the whole thing lights up at once, and that has caused a lot more injuries in the last five to six years than we saw with sparklers before,” he said.

And if you think you’re young and invincible, think again: A fifth of the injuries reported by hospitals since 2006 happened to people between the ages of 0 and 9. More than a fifth of injuries happened to people ages 10 to 19, and an additional 23 percent of victims were 20 to 29 years old.

Fireworks injuries by age in Minnesota, 2006-2015
In 697 fireworks-related injuries reported to Minnesota hospitals between 2006 to 2015, people in the 10 to 19 and 20 to 29 age groups were most frequently injured. The ages of eight reported injured people was unknown.
Source: Minnesota State Fire Marshal Division

More than 70 percent of people treated for reported fireworks injuries were men.

Property damage

People aren’t the only casualties of fireworks accidents.

In 2014, a fire caused by illegal fireworks over Memorial Day weekend erupted at a vehicle storage facility in Zumbrota, causing $1.3 million in damage — by far the costliest reported damages caused by fireworks in the last decade, but definitely not the only ones.

Between 2006 and 2015, the State Fire Marshal Division reported 802 incidents involving damage caused by fireworks.

Those numbers, too, are likely higher than the statistics let on: About 85 percent of state fire departments report to the Minnesota Fire Incident Reporting System, from which the report is created, and some smaller fires likely go unnoticed by authorities.

Again, these numbers tend to peak around the Fourth of July holiday. The State Fire Marshal reported an average of $141,500 in fireworks damage to property in June and July each year between 2006 and 2015.

Dollars lost to fireworks damage in Minnesota
In general, most costly property damage caused by fireworks in Minnesota happens in June and July. 2014 was an exception: a fireworks-caused Memorial Day weekend fire in Zumbrota resulted in $1.3 million in damages, making it the costliest year in the last decade.
Source: Minnesota State Fire Marshal Division

Looser laws?

In recent years, the Minnesota Legislature has seen bills that would loosen restrictions on fireworks in the state.

This year, a bill that would allow the sale of bottle rockets and firecrackers from June 1 to July 10 passed the Minnesota House but not the Senate, Minnesota Public Radio reported. Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a similar fireworks bill in 2012. Both support and opposition for allowing more fireworks in Minnesota have been bipartisan.

random acts of data logo

Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Vernon Center), who supported the bill,  called it a “fun and freedom act,” according to MPR: “The list that you see of the people who are against fireworks in Minnesota is a list of people who just don’t want to have fun anymore,” he said.

Mohr, who has testified against such legislation, disagrees. After Minnesota went from allowing no fireworks to allowing some (sparklers, party poppers and some ground-based fireworks, for example) in 2002, injuries went up 300 percent, he said.

He and others at Regions are in the process of compiling statistics on firework injuries before and after regulations were loosened in U.S. states.

The burn doctor suggests that instead of do-it-yourself backyard blitzes, fireworks fans should take advantage of the many free, professional shows put on in cities and towns across Minnesota. Injuries are very rarely associated with such events.

“There's really no need to incur the expense, the risk and the potential injury to (light off fireworks) when you can just go down to your local fireworks show,” he said.

Random Acts of Data is an occasional series by MinnPost data reporter Greta Kaul and news editor Tom Nehil. The goal: to answer questions about all things Minnesota using the vast amount of data at our disposal. If you have a question you’re wondering about, send an email to data@minnpost.com with the subject line, “Random Acts of Data.”

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Comments (3)

Speaking of data...

Selecting time periods that pump up raw numbers is a tried and true method of data manipulation. Averaging instead of trending is another way of pumping up numbers.

700 of something always looks worse than 70 of something. And an "average" that includes a single atypical event bends the curve. If you look at the over-all trend for instance you see that the cost of property damage has been trending downward on the graph since 2006.

Another form of manipulation is clumping, clearly few of the "injuries" are fatal and without any breakdown we don't know the range of severity. Clumping a burn from a sparkler with a blast to the face in a raw number of injuries can distort the perception of danger. Discussing at length a single case of abject stupidity that lead to a fatal outcome next to a raw clumped number of injuries can create the impression that killing ones self by putting an explosive on top of the head represents a "typical" injury.

We frequently evaluate potential danger by working out an injury ratio, but you need an estimate of total number of users to do that, which is missing here. If we've got a total number of 100 people using fireworks every year the risk of injury would be 7 out of 10. If we have 100k... Since have no real estimate of total users we can't work out a ratio.

I'm not saying fireworks are safe, and I'm certainly not saying that the number of injuries is acceptable, but looking at the numbers it's clear that far more children are injured playing organized sports every year than are by fireworks, yet no one is writing an article declaring sports to be "dangerous".

I wonder if an anecdotal educational approach that focuses specific safety concerns, like not placing a mortar on top of one's head, might be more effective than an attempt at data analysis of some kind.

From a data perspective it might be interesting to compare the number of injuries in MN with those in WI or ND where this stuff is legal.

That's the best headline of the year!

And as for the article, what a bunch of spoilsports. Shouldn't we all have the chance to lose an eye now and then, in the interests of ol' fashioned FUN? I consider permanent scars from white-hot sparklers to be a wonderful reminder of the sacrifice of so many Revolutionary War patriots who made our country free. For those who may never get to fire a musket, it's a nice reminder that gunpowder and fire can still maim in the best patriot tradition!

Don't forget to wear a helmet when viewing fireworks on the 4th!

These are the obtuse articles I like to forward to my conservative friends.

The author takes a national pastime, and because of finger burns and drunk people hurting themselves in Michigan, we should somehow not celebrate.