Fireworks going off in Harlem, New York City, on June 20, 2020

July Fourth is known for outdoor gatherings, cookouts, and perhaps most essentially, fireworks.

Spectacular pyrotechnic displays light up the night and boom through the air—sometimes for multiple nights in a row. But as impressive and fun as fireworks can be, one thing is clear: They also come with potential dangers, particularly in the hands of the untrained. In some states, they're illegal for consumers to use.

In 2020 there was about a 50 percent increase in deaths and injuries due to fireworks, according to a new report from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (PDF). There were at least 18 deaths and approximately 15,600 ER visits because of fireworks-related incidents, according to the CPSC—with numbers likely spiking due to large numbers of people setting fireworks off on their own after many public displays were canceled due to pandemic precautions.

In addition to causing injuries, fireworks may also increase exposure to toxic pollutants like lead, according to a study published in the summer of 2020 in the journal Particle and Fibre Toxicology. 

Plus, when there are explosions taking place throughout the night, the noise can be disruptive and stressful, especially for parents of young children, people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and pet owners. 

Don't Try This at Home

When asked how consumers can safely set off fireworks on their own, most firefighters and safety professionals agree: “They shouldn’t,” says Doug Stern, who spent 23 years as a Cincinnati firefighter and is now the director of strategic campaigns and media relations for the International Association of Fire Fighters.

The IAFF says fireworks should be left to the professionals. Every year more than 10,000 people are treated for fireworks-related injuries, and in 2019 fireworks started approximately 19,500 fires, according to the organization. 

More on Staying Safe

In recent years, 15 states have relaxed laws regarding the sale and possession of fireworks, according to a study published in 2020 in the journal BMC Public Health. The authors of the study looked at injury data from one of those states, West Virginia, and found that the rate of fireworks-related injuries appeared to rise after the law changed. “These findings suggest that as firework accessibility increased, more individuals were exposed to these objects and increased their risk of injury,” they wrote.

State bans on fireworks aren't foolproof, however. People often cross state lines to buy fireworks, and liberal laws may help explain why what seem like remarkably large unofficial pyrotechnics are sometimes on display even in New York City, where you can’t legally purchase a sparkler.

Tips on Safety

For those planning to set off their own displays against the advice of the professionals, or people who plan to watch from close by or simply can’t avoid the neighborhood fireworks, Stern says several steps can help mitigate the risk. (Make sure to check your local laws before proceeding.)

Check your surroundings. Try not to set off anything near buildings or dry areas, he says, to avoid setting fire to a home, car, or forest.

Be extremely careful about anything that launches. Devices that launch into the sky are often responsible for the most severe injuries, Stern says. Fireworks packaged in brown paper can be especially dangerous, because that’s often a sign they’re meant to be part of professional displays, according to the CPSC

Don’t relight a dud. If a firework doesn’t go off as expected, still consider it “lit” and douse it in water, Stern says. Douse every device after it’s done burning, the CPSC says, to avoid a potential trash fire.

Even sparklers are dangerous. In many places, sparklers are the only devices that can be legally purchased, which makes people think they’re safest—and which is why kids are often allowed to handle them. But young children should never play with fireworks, according to the CPSC. Sparklers can burn at up to 2,000° F, hot enough to melt metal and instantly sear skin.

Protect your hearing. Anything louder than 85 decibels can affect your hearing within an hour or two, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, and a firework can hit 150 decibels at a 3-foot range, which is enough to immediately damage hearing. Get far away, and consider using earplugs.

Keep kids away. More than one-third of fireworks injuries happen to kids under 15, according to the IAFF. Keeping them away can prevent burns and hearing loss.

Stay upwind. Making sure not to breathe in smoky, post-boom air may be especially important for kids, says Terry Gordon, PhD, a professor in the department of environmental medicine at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York City. In the 2020 study, Gordon and his co-authors found that fireworks can release toxic pollutants like lead, titanium, and strontium into the air. While we need more research to see how harmful fireworks smoke can be, “developing lungs might be more susceptible” to damage, he says.

Coping With the Noise

When people nearby are setting off fireworks night after night, the disruption can be hard to handle, especially if you have kids or pets disturbed by the sound.

Is your pet disturbed by thunderstorms? Contact your vet sometime before fireworks activity starts to pick up, Stern says. There are behavioral interventions and even medications that can help particularly anxious animals, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

If the fireworks noise near you is particularly disruptive or if you find yourself woken up by it regularly, it’s worth trying earplugs and a white noise machine to dampen the sounds. Noise-canceling headphones may also be an option.

For people with PTSD, fireworks can also cause serious anxiety, especially if they’re unexpected. Veterans, for example, may have a strong reaction to fireworks "because it reminds them of explosions that have occurred in the battlefield,” says Alan Peterson, PhD, a professor and chief of the division of behavioral medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. And PTSD is common in many other populations, too, including survivors of gun violence.

While many people with PTSD may try to avoid fireworks, using earplugs or headphones to try to drown them out, for those who are ready (talk to your therapist or doctor to check), a fireworks display could be an opportunity to recondition themselves and remove some of the traumatic associations with loud noises, says Peterson, who served in the Air Force for 21 years, deploying three times.

“To be near a fireworks show and to hear over and over again loud booms, that’s part of what helps an individual get over that,” he says. “The body initially reacts as if it’s true danger, but if an individual will hang with it over time, the body reconditions itself.”

While there’s not much you can do to avoid random fireworks in your neighborhood, if they're common, Stern recommends reviewing your fire safety plan.

If you live in a freestanding house, it’s a good time to clear any brush from around it, he says. You should have a working smoke detector and carbon monoxide alarm, and he suggests that people also have an up-to-date home fire extinguisher that they know how to use.

Data from the Environmental Protection Agency indicates that air pollution levels of toxic metals are higher near July Fourth and New Year’s Day than most other times of year, according to Gordon, which indicates that people with cardiovascular or pulmonary conditions may want to take extra precautions by staying indoors as much as possible when fireworks are nearby.