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More people are using fireworks in 2020, and it’s causing major injuries

If you think you’ve noticed an increase in fireworks recently, you’re right. Doctors at LAC+USC Medical Center warn people to celebrate the Fourth of July safely amid a sudden rise in major injuries.

firework injuries USC LAC burn center
Injuries treated at the Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center due to firework accidents include hand or finger amputations, eye injuries and ruptured eardrums. (Photo/Diane Labombarbe, iStock)

In Los Angeles County — and in cities across the nation — people have felt a subjective difference for weeks: fireworks going off late into the night.

They seem to be bigger and louder than before, even perhaps professional grade. Some people attribute the steep rise in amateur pyrotechnics to people in COVID-19 lockdown needing to blow off steam, while others theorize about canceled community fireworks exhibitions leading to a flood of cheap raw materials on the black markets.

The sense that there are more and bigger fireworks in the hands of amateurs this year is confirmed by a grim corollary: The trauma center and burn unit at the Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center have already seen a sharp increase in injuries due to fireworks this year.

In fact, it’s such a shocking increase that Matt Strickland, Geoffrey A. Anderson and Erik Roedel — all surgical critical care and trauma fellows at LAC+USC — and Kenji Inaba, chief of the trauma and critical care surgery division, reviewed the patients who came to the trauma center or the burn unit between Jan. 1, 2015, and June 24, 2020, with major fireworks-related injuries.

Overall, they found that fireworks injuries are 10 times more common this year then they have been in previous years. Of the 43 total patients with major fireworks injuries over that 5½-year period, 10 were from this year alone. And 2020’s injuries from the Fourth of July weekend haven’t even come in yet.

Major fireworks injuries are ‘entirely preventable’

The term “major injuries” is an important one. These are life-changing traumas. Of the patients studied, 80% needed to have a hand or finger amputated, 50% had eye injuries and 50% suffered ruptured eardrums. As of July 1, 2020, eight people have already had fireworks-related amputations at LAC+USC this year, and the team didn’t even catalog the scores of minor injuries that come in.

These losses are tragic, and they’re entirely preventable.

Matt Strickland

“We’re seeing a lot of people in the ED [emergency department] who aren’t even 20 years old yet,” Strickland said. “These losses are tragic, and they’re entirely preventable.”

The surgeons hope to sound the alarm before this weekend and help the public see the danger behind the extra noise before the long holiday.

“Unfortunately, the worst is yet to come,” Strickland said. “The Fourth and the days before and after have historically had the most injuries.” He also pointed out that the cancellation of large community fireworks celebrations means that more people will be celebrating at home — many with powerful illegal fireworks. “It’s a perfect storm brewing,” he said.

“Most people don’t realize that this is more than a nuisance, and it’s not a harmless way to cut loose,” Inaba added. And so the surgeons are speaking out. “Anything we can do to keep another kid from losing his hand, we’re going to do it.”

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