It’s almost the Fourth of July, the quintessential American holiday, and because nothing says America! quite like exploding things, it is the holiday of fireworks: glittering bursts over the town square, sparklers in the backyard, roman candles by the lake. It’s all fine, patriotic fun — unless you’re an emergency room doctor, or the parent of an easily awakened child, or the owner of an anxious dog, or a firefighter, or a bird, or the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which gathers a bunch of government officials, fireworks safety experts and volunteers on the Mall every year for what is surely the most morbid event to ever feature exploding watermelons.
“Our next firework demonstration will illustrate how catastrophic it can be to ignite a shell within a mortar off the top of one’s head,” a spokeswoman droned into a microphone on a recent June morning, while a small crowd gawked at a mannequin bro in a red shirt, posed with its hands clamped around a reloadable tube aerial shell firework balanced against its plastic skull.
BAM! went the firework, as flaming embers and mannequin cornmeal-brains spiraled dramatically through the air, a poof of smoke dissipating to reveal a freshly decapitated dummy.
“Whoa,” murmured a couple of onlookers.
Fireworks can be mesmerizing. They can be fun. They can kick up the production values of a wedding proposal or a sports win or a night of teenage mischief.
That being said, fireworks are actually kind of terrible.
They are certainly terrible when they go wrong, which is often: Last year, 9,100 people wound up in U.S. hospital emergency rooms with fireworks-related injuries. More than a third of them were children under age 15, and the majority of accidents occurred during the month surrounding July 4, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
“What do we see on the Fourth of July? Oh, we see all of the body parts that can be damaged by an explosive,” says Al Sacchetti, chief of emergency medicine at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, New Jersey, who has worked plenty of July 4 holidays in his 36-year tenure. “You see injuries to the soft body parts — the face, the eyes, everything from burns or abrasions all the way up to ruptured globes from looking at a firecracker too close while they’re trying to figure out why it didn’t light.”
No time to process that; Sacchetti is still rattling off body parts. “Arms, legs,” he says. “Digits. Digits are clearly at risk.” He sighs. “The number one thing is, straight up, fireworks are explosives, and explosives are designed to cause damage.”
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You could argue that “fireworks gone wrong” (Google it: 37 million results) serve a kind of Darwinistic function, reappropriating the anatomical inheritance of whoever can’t be bothered to follow the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s advice to “NEVER LAUNCH FIREWORKS OFF YOUR BODY.” But leaving aside that fireworks themselves can malfunction and that many of the wounded are just kids, consider the collateral damage of humankind’s fascination with these over-the-counter explosives. The National Fire Protection Association reports that roughly 18,500 fires are started by fireworks every year — housefires, vehicle fires, even wildfires, like the guy who set ablaze 47,000 acres in Arizona and caused more than $8 million in damage after he detonated fireworks as part of a “gender reveal” party. (It was a baby boy, congrats!)
But fireworks are still kind of terrible when they go right.
Just ask the residents of Beebe, Arkansas, who in the waning hours of 2010 were suddenly bombarded with the carcasses of 5,000 red-winged blackbirds, apparently so spooked by New Year’s Eve fireworks that they had collided with anything in their path as they fled their roost.
Or ask Suzanne West, executive director of the Sarvey Wildlife Care Center in Washington state, who reminds us that it’s not just birds, but a vast assortment of woodland creatures — rabbits, squirrels, foxes — who are endangered by the thunderous noise and falling embers. For the past three years, she’s received calls around the Fourth of July about bald eagles babies who panicked and flopped out of their nests because of fireworks.
“They’re young juveniles, all of them very dehydrated, scared out of their nests and on the ground too early,” she says. “And the parents are so freaked out that they’re not adequately providing for the baby, and that’s not a good scene.”
The irony is hard to overlook, she notes: “They are this iconic symbol of our nation’s freedom, and they’re the ones that are negatively impacted,” she says. “I’m sure the person shooting off the fireworks is oblivious to it. But if you’re so patriotic, why don’t you think about what you’re doing to the eagles?”
For those unmoved by bird murder, let’s check in with man’s best friend.
“Lucy is absolutely terrified of fireworks,” says author Cherie Priest of Seattle, whose dog isn’t usually allowed on the couch — except during fireworks, when Lucy, a husky mix, can only be calmed within a pillow fort, tucked beneath a blanket, with her people close by: “She’s about 90 pounds, and she’ll try to climb into your lap if it gets real bad,” Priest says.
Rawley, a chow mix in Oakland, California, can no longer handle it unmediated. His owners have recently been administering regular doses of CBD oil, which is stocked right by the checkout register at the local pet shop in the weeks leading up to July 4. Otherwise, “he just loses his mind,” says Simone Aponte, Rawley’s owner. Independence Day has bred dependency, and the trauma isn’t confined to the holiday, either. “There have been so many fireworks this summer,” says Aponte, “we’ve been giving him CBD every night.”
Every night! It’s enough to irritate reasonable humans, too. It’s the all-summer-long-ness of fireworks that frustrates Rachel Bingham Kessler, an artist and mom of two on Peaks Island, Maine, who says that the small island community has not been thrilled by the constant fireworks displays set off on nearby House Island, which has become a popular wedding destination in the summer. “People are getting a little bit used to it now, but begrudgingly,” she says. “It’s like — ‘oh, there’s another damn wedding again.’ “ (Do they sell CBD oil on Peaks Island?)
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Professional fireworks are definitely less terrible. Experts agree that they’re the safest, the masses agree that they’re the most impressive. But if you want to see a professional show close up, there’s plenty of firworks-adjacent terribleness to contend with: the oppressive mugginess; the mosquitoes that feast at dusk; the drinks that are always too warm, fished from a cooler that never has enough ice; the tacky patina of melted Popsicle goo and Dorito dust caked to your fingers, because no one ever remembers to pack napkins; the scared, crying toddlers; the scared, panting dogs; the people who inexplicably bring toddlers and dogs to fireworks displays; the porta-potties; the mad rush to pack up and beat the traffic home in a crowd of sweaty strangers who, frankly, are not smelling their best; the playlist of brassy Sousa marches that will play in your head on an insufferable loop for at least the next three days.
On Thursday, America’s 243rd birthday, the skies above the Mall will light up with a historic spectacle planned by a historically unpopular president, who announced that he would deliver a speech at the traditionally nonpartisan event, followed by a lavish “Salute to America” with fireworks imported from China. Before the big day, local newspapers will run stories reminding the masses that some Americans struggle with the unexpected pops and deafening blasts of neighborhood firecrackers because they are veterans of America’s wars or survivors of America’s mass shootings. The number of people who say they feel “extremely proud to be an American” — fewer than half, according to Gallup’s annual poll — sits at a record low.
Can fireworks distract the disillusioned, even for a few minutes? We’re supposed to be thinking about America, but instead we’re thinking about colorful explosions — which, when you think about it, are really just flaming garbage.
Dear Americans: Think about the eagles. Think about your eardrums. Think about the dogs hiding under blankets. Think about the blast dummies and the (gag) ruptured globes. Think about the people of Arkansas who wondered if they were witnessing the 5,000 blackbirds of the apocalypse.
At least, think about leaving the fireworks to the pros. (Think about packing enough napkins.)
There’s no perfect solution, says West, the wildlife caretaker. Not everyone has easy access to a big municipal display, and while those are vastly preferable, they’re still distressing to wildlife and certain pets and people within earshot. If the eagle call comes again this year, she is ready to answer.
“You can’t win,” she sighs. “In America, we like to blow stuff up.”