Legal shell-and-mortars cause most severe fireworks injuries

News Release

June 19, 2017
For immediate release

Legal shell-and-mortars cause most severe fireworks injuries

Annual flood of trauma cases around July Fourth informed research conducted at Harborview Medical Center

Media Contact: 

Susan Gregg 

Certain legal fireworks might be better left on store shelves, suggests research conducted at UW Medicine’s Harborview Medical Center.

Shell-and-mortar-style combustibles caused nearly 40 percent of fireworks-related injuries resulting in hospitalization, according to the study, published in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine.

Michael Spencer lost several fingers and underwent 11 surgeries to repair damage from fireworks.
Michael Spencer lost several fingers and underwent
11 surgeries to repair damage from fireworks.

Shells are spherical aerial explosives designed to be manually thrown or launched from a tube, called a mortar. Shell-and-mortar fireworks are legal under federal and Washington state law.

Every year, about 10,500 people are treated in emergency departments for fireworks injuries, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.  This number has remained relatively unchanged since 1999. However, little data exists on severe fireworks injuries that require hospital admission.

The study reviewed the cases of 294 people admitted to Harborview Medical Center for severe fireworks injuries from 2005 to 2015.  Patients’ mean age was 24, and males accounted for 90 percent of injuries. Among adults’ fireworks injuries, 98 (86 percent) involved shell-and-mortar explosives. The majority of children’s injuries came from rockets; teens sustained most serious injuries from homemade fireworks.

In many cases, severe injuries required multiple surgeries and caused permanent impairment, such as limb amputation or vision loss.

The study’s lead author is Dr. Brinkley Sandvall, a plastic surgery resident at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Harborview’s annual surge of emergency-department patients around the Fourth of July spurred her interest in fireworks research, she said.

“We treated about 30 patients for hand injuries requiring surgery during the July Fourth weekend last year,” she said.

“This firework injury study is an excellent example of how real-world injuries treated at our trauma center contribute to our knowledge of injury causes and prevention,” said co-author Dr. Monica Vavilala, director of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center (HIPRC). “The next step is to apply our new knowledge to health practices, policy decisions and individual behavior.”

HIPRC and the Seattle Fire Department recommend leaving fireworks to the professionals. They also note that fireworks without a permit are illegal in the City of Seattle.

“Fireworks pose a serious fire hazard and safety risk to those who use them,” said Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins. “Each year, we respond to preventable fireworks-related injuries and fires.”

The study was conducted with support from HIPRC, UW Medicine departments of surgery, anesthesiology and pain medicine, the Division of Plastic Surgery and the Department of Epidemiology in the School of Public Health.

The Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center’s mission is to reduce the impact of injury and violence on people’s lives through research, education, training and public awareness.



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