The Health Risks of Fireworks

Fireworks have been an American tradition since the first Independence Day. But they’re not exactly harmless fun. Trips to emergency departments for fireworks-related injuries have risen every year since 2007, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Fireworks can affect long-term health too, since they release contaminants that can affect air quality and, as a result, human health.

Here’s what to know about the health risks of fireworks—and what you can do to protect yourself.

They could trigger respiratory issues

Fireworks lead to a spike in particulate matter, which is the same type of air pollution caused by wildfire smoke. Plus, the brilliant colors splashed across the night sky are created by an array of potentially toxic metals, says Terry Gordon, a professor in the department of environmental medicine at NYU Langone Health. “There’s lots of different metals they use for the colors that you shouldn't be breathing,” he says.

Researchers have long known that fine particles are linked to short- and long-term health concerns like respiratory and heart disease, low birth weight, neurological diseases, and even early death. Little research, however, has focused on risks specifically related to fireworks, which means scientists can only hypothesize about how they might affect health. “Just by pure logic, because of the high concentrations of these particles and the metals, they should have adverse health effects,” Gordon says. “But we’re not keeping track of that.” Anecdotally, he adds, you’ve probably heard of someone coughing or developing a sore throat after a fireworks display. But more research is needed to determine how much of a role factors like proximity and duration of exposure play in risk.

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In general, people with preexisting conditions like asthma and heart disease, as well as children and the elderly, should take precautions around fireworks. There are a variety of protective steps you can take, says Jun Wu, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of California, Irvine’s program in public health. (Wu has researched fireworks-related spikes in particulate matter.) If fireworks are being set off in your vicinity, close your windows and doors, she suggests. “What level of exposure you get depends on your activity levels—for instance, whether you’re outdoors—and, if you’re indoors, how leaky your house is,” Wu says. “If you have to go outside, wearing a [N95] mask would be good.”

Fireworks increase the risk of injuries

According to the CPSC, there were 11 fireworks-related deaths in the U.S. in 2022, plus an estimated 10,200 injuries. The majority (65%) involved men, and most of them occurred around the Fourth of July holiday. Fireworks can be deadly when mishandled, the agency stresses, but there’s also another threat: In 2022, 43% of tested fireworks contained illegal components like fuses that don’t comply with the law. That can increase the likelihood of something going awry.

Every year, Dr. Joshua Feinstein, an emergency room physician at Memorial Hermann in Houston, treats patients who have been rushed to the hospital because of at-home fireworks mishaps. Many didn’t time things right and were standing too close to the explosion; alcohol is often involved, which means people might not be exercising common sense, and their movement could be impaired. Often, kids simply don’t understand the blast radius and get too close, Feinstein says. “Sometimes you have fireworks that don’t seem to go off—they’re termed a dud—but the problem is, they're not really a dud,” he adds. “They’re just taking too long, so people approach them. Then, boom—they go off.” Among the most common injuries are serious burns, facial trauma, hand fractures and lacerations that can lead to finger loss, and leg injuries.

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Feinstein cautions against setting off fireworks at home. But if you’re determined to do so, make sure you have a bucket of water nearby for emergencies; pour it on “duds” that don’t ignite. Set up in a clear area from anything that could be flammable, and only light one at a time. Afterward, soak used fireworks in water for a few hours before disposing of them.

And keep in mind that, while they might seem innocuous, sparklers are also dangerous. They burn at about 2,000°F—hot enough to melt some metals—and can quickly ignite clothing. “You gotta be very careful,” Feinstein says. “People view them as being safer because they're not exploding,” but that ignores serious risks, especially among kids. If someone is jumping around holding a sparkler, for example, they could accidentally whack someone else with it; even once the sparkler is spent, the rod will be hot and can lead to burns.

They can cause temporary hearing loss

The booming explosions that accompany fireworks displays can damage your ears—and the closer you are to them, the higher the risk. As the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association points out, you could develop noise-induced hearing loss, which is preventable but irreversible. Even a single loud blast that lasts for less than a second can cause permanent damage.

Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: Wear earplugs or headphones that muffle the blasts. “There’s no reason to be ashamed,” Feinstein says. “It’s very reasonable to wear [protection].” Plus, as he points out, earplugs won’t dampen your enjoyment of the display. “You can feel the explosion, and you can still hear it,” he says. “It’s not like you’re not hearing it, and it will save your hearing in the long run.”

You might hurt your eyes

Eye injuries account for 16% of fireworks-related incidents each year, according to the CPSC. If you’re setting them off at home and are too close, “everything that can go wrong with an eye can go wrong when a firework explodes,” says Dr. David Solá-Del Valle, an ophthalmologist at OSF HealthCare in Urbana, Ill. “You can get a retinal detachment. You can get a corneal abrasion or corneal burn. You can get a ruptured eyeball, which we call an open-globe injury, where the firework goes in the eye and you need immediate surgery.”

Many of these injuries can lead to permanent vision loss. One of the worst accidents Solá-Del Valle can recall involved a patient who had already lost one eye to glaucoma—and, after a fireworks mishap, lost the other. “It can be incredibly life-changing,” he says. “You have to be vigilant.”

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So what’s the best way to ensure your eyes remain intact? For starters, always view fireworks from at least 500 feet away, Solá-Del Valle advises. If you’re setting them off, wear eye protection like safety glasses or goggles, even if you consider yourself an expert. If something does go wrong, call 911, and instruct the injured person not to rub their eye, rinse it with water, or apply pressure. “If something gets stuck in your eye, don't get it out,” Solá-Del Valle adds. “You can end up harming the eye more than the injury itself.” It’s also important not to take any potential blood thinners, including aspirin or ibuprofen. He says he’s seen patients quickly swallow some to help their pain—but the meds caused even more bleeding inside the eye.

In general, Solá-Del Valle stresses, it’s best to leave the fireworks to the professionals, and to keep a safe distance if you’re merely a bystander. That can help ensure you enjoy the display—instead of blowing up your healthy life.

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