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Fireworks Injuries Are Up This Summer As More Chicagoans Stage ‘Backyard’ Displays, Burn Doctor Says

Some of the most serious injuries were caused by mortars that weren't watched carefully, exploding in someone's face or chest, a Cook County doctor said.

Neighbors in South Shore set off fireworks and use sparklers on July 3, 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — The Fourth of July weekend was a busy one at Cook County Hospital, where trauma and burn unit doctors rushed to treat fireworks-related injuries.

While the burn unit has seen more firework and sparkler-related injuries since May than in past years, the number of patients treated over the holiday weekend could have been much worse considering fireworks complaints quadrupled and border-state fireworks shops have reported record sales.

“We did see some horrific injuries, there’s no question, but most were treated as outpatient type injuries. We had a couple of bad ones that we had to admit but nothing that we couldn’t handle,” said Dr. Stathis Poulakidas, a trauma and burn surgeon and director of the Cook County Trauma & Burn Unit.

Some of the most serious injuries were caused by mortars that weren’t watched carefully, exploding in someone’s face or chest, harming their lungs, Poulakidas said.

“There were some bad facial fractures and lacerations. There’s skin burns all over. People didn’t ignite on fire like you would think but there was a peppering [of burns], almost like a shotgun blast with the mortars,” he said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Chicagoans set off fireworks in Lincoln Park in Chicago on July 4, 2020.

Victims treated this weekend ranged in age from 15 to 50 with most being between 30 and 40 years old, Poulakidas said.

It’s normal for the burn unit to see an uptick in fireworks injuries around the Fourth of July. But they treated fireworks injuries much earlier this year than in years past.

“We usually get a big uptick around the week of the 4th, maybe starting a few days before and extending a few days after,” Poulakidas said. “But we’ve been peppered continually since mid-May with smaller fireworks injuries…kids with burns on their hands from sparklers, and also injuries from the mortars, the M80s, the Roman candles — those started much earlier and for a longer period of time than we normally see for fireworks injuries.”

Total numbers of injuries and of fires resulting from fireworks have not been tabulated from this year yet, but based on increase of 911 calls and increased sales of fireworks at fireworks stores just over the state borders, the Illinois State Fire Marshal, which issues an annual report towards the end of July, fears there may be an increase in both.

“That’s what we’re waiting to see,” JC Felt, spokesman for the Illinois State Fire Marshal, said Monday.

Last year 126 people were injured and one killed from fireworks between June 23 and July 20. Half of all injured suffered multiple injuries and children under the age of 11 accounted for 22 percent of those injuries, according to the Fire Marshal’s report.

Firework activity has increased across the country this year. The cancellation of municipal fireworks shows as well as boredom over the last few months as people have been cooped up because of coronavirus may have led to the increase of “backyard fireworks,” said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association.

With the rise in do-it-yourself fireworks shows that began around May, 911 calls in Chicago so far this year have seen a large increase. 

Between January 1 through July 5, Chicagoans made 19,925 calls to 911, up from 4,612 during the same period last year, according to OEMC spokesperson Mary May.

And sales of fireworks at shops across the Wisconsin and Indiana borders have been up significantly since May, with one store in Indiana tripling its sales over last year and another store having to operate 24-hours to keep up with demand. 

Despite the amount of calls, Chicago Police made no fireworks-related arrests over the holiday weekend, according to police spokesperson Michelle Tannehill.

Before the July 4th weekend, fire officials urged Chicagoans to be safe with fireworks — even sparklers, which many consider safe enough for children to handle.

At a press conference at the Chicago Fire Academy on July 1, Fire Commissioner Richard Ford II said “sparklers are easily available, and while they may not go boom … they will burn up to 1,800 degrees.”

Credit: Provided
Dr. Stathis Poulakidas

Poulakidas agreed with the Ford, saying sparklers may look harmless but can be extremely dangerous to children.

“What they do is they burn their hands and drop them and it either catches their clothing on fire if it hits their shirt or drop it onto their shoes and burns through and it burns their feet pretty significantly, in addition to the hand burns,” Poulakidas said. “They are very simple to look at, they look very innocuous, but carry an extreme hazard because you put them in a young person’s hands and they become a lethal weapon.”

Asked if treating fireworks victims distracts him or hospital staff from treating people with other types of injuries, Poulakidas said the hospital is able to handle whatever comes its way.

“It makes for a busy night but I think we are well equipped to handle the volume, from our nursing staff to our ancillary staff to all our physicians. I think we were well equipped to handle that as well as our gunshot victims, car accident victims and all of that.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Chicagoans set off fireworks in Lincoln Park in Chicago on July 4, 2020.

While he feels it’s impossible for the police to enforce the state’s ban on fireworks, Poulakidas said it would help if advertising was scaled back.

“The folks that sell the fireworks just over our borders are advertising heavily along the highways and throughout the state. That might be one proactive maneuver to put some of those ideas out of people’s minds,” Poulakidas said.

Whether or not that ever happens is yet to be determined, but Poulakidas said he will continue to remind residents that fireworks are nothing to be cavalier about.

“We try to tell people to leave it to the professionals,” he said.

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