Fireworks: All-American fun, or too risky?

Consumers browse fireworks for sale in advance of Independence Day. More people have been setting off their own fireworks in recent years, but the days surrounding the Fourth of July can result in a spike in eye and other injuries due to improper use. (AP photo)

Fireworks on the Fourth are a time-honored tradition in communities in the Philadelphia region and across the country.

But risks abound with that all-American pastime. Thousands of people will likely get hurt setting off fireworks this weekend, and a few Philadelphia-area communities have canceled their displays due to safety concerns.

Safety and industry officials say more people are now setting off their own explosive devices -- and getting hurt in the process.

“Misuse and malfunction resulted in a number of injuries last year,” said Kim Dulic, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Last year, eight people were killed and 11,400 others nationwide suffered injuries from fireworks, a 31 percent increase from the number of people hurt in 2012, according to recent data from the commission. Sixty-five percent of fireworks-related injuries in 2013 occurred in the month surrounding Independence Day.

The rise in injuries comes as more people are putting on backyard fireworks shows. The American Pyrotechnics Association, an industry trade group, says consumer fireworks sales have been growing since 2006 and could surpass $675 million in revenue this year.

In the emergency department at the Wills Eye Hospital, Dr. Ann Murchison is gearing up for one of the busiest weeks of the year.

The days surrounding the Fourth of July typically bring a surge in patients suffering from wounds that range from scratches and abrasions to eyeball lacerations, detached retinas and burns to the eye, said Murchison, the ER’s codirector.

Sparklers, firecrackers and bottle rockets contribute to the most injuries, she said. Young children -- whose eyes are lower to the ground, where explosives are shooting off -- are particularly at risk.

That’s why medical professionals generally encourage people to sit back and enjoy a show rather than put on their own.

“The injuries we see are almost entirely because people are setting off fireworks themselves and not leaving it to professionals,” Murchison said.

In areas where consumer fireworks aren’t permitted, she said, injuries could be more likely because “people may not be as well informed about how to be safe with fireworks.”

In Pennsylvania, residents can set off small, ground-based “novelty” fireworks like sparklers and toy caps, but larger explosives like Roman candles, firecrackers and cherry bombs aren’t permitted. But stores can sell the more powerful products to out-of-state shoppers. New Jersey bans both the sale and use of all consumer fireworks.

But suburban Philadelphians looking to catch a professional display won’t have some popular options this year, as towns putting on the shows are grappling with their own set of safety concerns.

Cherry Hill Township has canceled its fireworks show after determining that its site “simply couldn’t handle the volume of people” anymore and there was no other suitable location, spokeswoman Bridget Palmer said.

Since the recession, some area municipalities have canceled their displays due to budgetary reasons. Over the past few years, Cherry Hill’s display has drawn crowds who used to attend other South Jersey shows, Palmer said, bringing as many as 5,000 to 7,000 people to Cherry Hill High School West.

She said public safety officials determined that the site couldn’t be safely evacuated in an emergency, and first responders wouldn’t have been able to get to a scene quickly enough.

In Bucks County, New Hope also won’t have fireworks this year, due in part to safety concerns over crowding.

New Hope previously put on fireworks shows on summer Fridays. But the displays were hurting businesses on Friday evenings, a statement from the Greater New Hope Chamber of Commerce.

Having fireworks only on holidays could cause a surge in crowd sizes and the “infrastructure and public safety systems are not sized to handle crowds of that size,” the statement said.

Contact Emily Babay at 215-854-2153 or Follow @emilybabay on Twitter.

Contact the Breaking News Desk at 215-854-2443 or Follow @phillynews on Twitter.