"Fireworks have never been safer, and their use continues to increase each year."
Bill Weimer on Tuesday, June 26th, 2012 in a newspaper column
Fireworks executive says they've never been safer and use is on the rise
Picking a favorite holiday is almost like picking a favorite child, but PolitiFact Ohio admits to particular fondness for the Fourth of July.
We enjoy the invocations of history, especially when they're factually accurate. We like the annual cookout with old friends. And we love fireworks.
So we were especially interested to read a newspaper commentary by Bill Weimer, vice president of Youngstown-based Phantom Fireworks, the nation’s largest retailer of consumer fireworks.
"Fireworks have never been safer, and their use continues to increase each year," he wrote. "This alone provides a strong case for the regulated and sensible use of consumer fireworks."
Really? Safer than ever?
In 1994, Weimer said, the United States imported 117 million pounds of fireworks, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported 12,500 fireworks-related injuries. By 2010, fireworks imports grew more than 75 percent to 205.9 million pounds, but the number of fireworks-related injuries dropped by more than 30 percent to 8,600.
"This is phenomenal progress in safety," Weimer wrote, calling on Ohio's General Assembly to relax state laws and legalize consumer fireworks.
PolitiFact Ohio looked at the law and checked the numbers.
Ohio law, which now permits the use of only "novelty and trick" fireworks, is among the more restrictive nationally. Three other states have similar laws, and four ban all consumer fireworks.
Forty-one states and Washington, D.C., allow some or all types of consumer fireworks permitted by federal regulations, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association.
We found that Weimer's numbers, as reported by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the American Pyrotechnics Association, a trade group, are accurate.
The same day Weimer’s column was published, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, which set standards for consumer fireworks in 1976, issued its annual fireworks report last week. It confirmed the injury number Weimer used -- 8,600 for 2010.
CPSC spokeswoman Nikki Fleming said the injury rate as measured by injuries per 100,000 persons has leveled off.
The Massachusetts-based National Fire Protection Association takes the position that "using consumer fireworks is simply not worth the risk," division manager Guy Colonna said.
"We don't seem to be trending that rapidly toward zero," he said of the injury numbers. "You
haven't moved the needle so much in terms of saying it's safe for consumers to use."
The NFPA -- which coordinates the national Alliance to Stop Consumer Fireworks -- said in its annual report in June that there are more fires on a typical July 4th than any other day of the year, and that fireworks account for 40 percent.
Colonna acknowledged statistics showing that the rate of injury per 100,000 pounds of imported fireworks has declined, but said it is "still a significant number."
The American Pyrotechnics Association, a trade group, cites the latter statistic. It shows that the rate of injuries dropped from 38 per 100,000 pounds of fireworks in 1976 to 7 in 2000 and to 4 per 100,000 pounds of fireworks in 2010.
The trade group considers that significant because U.S. fireworks consumption has skyrocketed. It more than doubled between 2000, when the trade group says "the trend in relaxing (state) consumer fireworks laws was first initiated," and 2011, when 212 million pounds were sold.
The trade group credits "safety education efforts and the ever improving quality of its products." It says that injuries and fires most typically result from illegal fireworks and from improper use, especially involving children.
But does that mean that fireworks themselves are safer?
We asked Weimer what he had to support his statement. He immediately credited the work of the CPSC and the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory.
In the 1970s, the CPSC set federal requirements for consumer fireworks that cover cautionary labeling, the burn time of fuses, explosive powder content, stability for both ground-based and aerial devices and proper performance.
In 1988, the CPSC started an inspection and enforcement program for Chinese-manufactured fireworks. China -- which now supplies 98 percent of the fireworks in the United States -- began exporting fireworks to this country in 1973.
Initially, 75 percent of fireworks tested by the CPSC failed to comply with the regulations.
"The quality truly wasn't very good," Weimer said. "The quality was inconsistent. The industry knew that if it didn't so something there would be big issues."
Working with the CPSC, importers established the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory to set additional, stricter requirements for consumer fireworks. The AFSL went to factories in China, conducted seminars, worked with manufacturers and started a testing program in China in 1994.
"The linchpin of the system is the testing," Weimer said.
The testing is conducted by an independent laboratory hired from outside China by the AFSL. Each fireworks shipment is tested for compliance with 15 quality standards, Weimer said. If any standard is not met by any of the randomly selected cases, the entire case lot fails.
In the program's first year, 1994, 36 percent of the random lots of tested fireworks were rejected. By 2002, that number was less than 10 percent. The compliance rate exceeded 90 percent.
CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum, speaking at a symposium in China last January, noted that the agency has been working for years with manufacturers and with China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine.
"While AQSIQ and CPSC may work to improve product safety with somewhat different motivations, everyone benefits from the end result, which is improved product safety," she said, adding that "we have increased the frequency, scope, and depth of our training in China."
Weimer thinks that the availability of regulated consumer fireworks diminishes the use of the "really lethal" illegal and homemade variety.
So what's the grand finale?
PolitiFact Ohio is not ruling on the advisability of maintaining, relaxing or tightening Ohio laws regulating fireworks. And we’re not taking a position on whether consumer use of fireworks is even a good idea.
Weimer’s statement addressed legal and proper use of fireworks by consumers -- not use of homemade or illegal products. And fireworks are -- as Weimer told us -- a "product with risk associated with it."
But, the statistical record shows that the rate of injury from fireworks declined nationally while their use increased dramatically, and while laws governing their consumer use loosened. There still are injuries, but the annual rate has plateaued even while consumption continues to grow.
We found no stronger explanation than the concurrent regulatory and policing work of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory to make fireworks safer.
Weimer’s claim is accurate. On the Truth-O-Meter it rates True.