Snappers, Sparklers, and Fireworks: Meet the Fourth of July’s Biggest Dangers

These little fireworks may seem harmless enough — but they could cause serious injury if you’re not careful. (Photo: Flickr/eliz.jpy22)

Whether you know these little fireworks as poppers, snappers, or bang snaps, they’re a staple at Fourth of July and New Year’s gatherings. They’re tiny and circular, with skinny tails, and you throw them at the ground, where they land with a loud pop and sometimes even a small spark.

Four-year-old Nolan Haney was playing with a bag of them at a gathering near his Houston home this past New Year’s Eve — until he threw one fateful popper at the ground.

A spark ricocheted up off the pavement, striking Nolan in the eye. “He started crying, saying his eye hurt,” Nolan’s mother, Julie Haney, tells Yahoo Health. “We took him inside, and he was OK for a little bit. But a friend of ours is studying to be a nurse practitioner. She told us we should take Nolan to see a doctor.”

The Haneys drove Nolan to the hospital, where the doctors confirmed he had a corneal burn and administered medicine via drops. They told the Haneys to follow up with an ophthalmologist the next day. Nolan’s eye started to heal after his ER visit, but it continued to be irritated and red. “We eventually put a patch over it to help with the light, because every time he would blink, he would wince and say, ‘Ow, that kind of hurts,’” his mother recalls. 

Nolan Haney had to wear an eye patch after a spark from a popper ricocheted into his eye. (Photo courtesy of the Haneys)

There was a reason the pain wasn’t going away, which pediatric ophthalmologist Veeral Shah, MD, discovered when Nolan made it to his clinic at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. Nolan had a combination of thermal and chemical burns to the surface of his cornea from the popper. There were also first-degree thermal burns to his left eyelid. Nolan complained of pain, blurry vision, tearing, and light sensitivity.

Even worse: His eye still had tiny bits of debris in it. “Given the explosive nature of firecrackers, the initially heated debris fragments scattered and got implanted into his anterior cornea,” Shah tells Yahoo Health. “He had multiple corneal abrasions, and subsequently developed a significant amount of inflammation from the thermal burn and the continued presence of the foreign bodies embedded in the cornea.”

Doctors ultimately had to use a fine drill to dig the foreign bodies out of Nolan’s eye. Today, he has a little scar tissue in his peripheral vision, but his mom says he doesn’t seem to notice. Fortunately, with the surgery, antibiotic eye drops, and a round of steroids, Nolan has otherwise made a full recovery. 

Like thousands of other families, the Haneys didn’t realize the possible dangers of playing with poppers. “We’ve used the regular poppers, all the time,” Haney says, “but this was the first time we used the ones that spark. The lower you are to the ground — they’re going to pop out and up.”

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Fireworks injuries are extremely common. According to the 2015 Fireworks Safety Survey commissioned by the American Academy of Ophthalmologists and conducted by Harris Poll, one in 10 people report having been injured by fireworks, and one-third of people say they at least know someone who has been injured. Still, 54 percent surveyed think it’s OK for children between the ages of 5 and 10 to play with sparklers and other fireworks. (For comparison: Just 11 percent would allow a child of that age to light birthday candles.) 

And just as there is every year, there will likely be an uptick in firework-related injuries around the Fourth of July, says emergency medical physician Darria Long Gillespie, MD, an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine. As the Haneys learned, fireworks set off in the sky aren’t the sole culprit. 

“Sparklers are a leading cause of injury,with 40 percent of firework-related injuries involving kids,” Gillespie tells Yahoo Health. The sticks can reach temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, making them extremely dangerous for children to handle. Sparks can bounce off and land just about anywhere, and waving them around can result in burns with one wrong move. 

Sparkler sticks can reach up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. (Photo: Flickr/Neal Gillis)

“Only adults should be allowed to handle fireworks, sparklers, or other flammable devices,” Gillespie insists. “That said, 40 percent of children’s injuries are in kids who are just bystanders, so it’s crucial to keep children a significant distance away.” 

When it comes to fireworks, Gillespie says her official advice is always, “Leave it to the professionals.” However, she realizes some will use them at home. “If you do choose to do fireworks at home, there are a few rules you absolutely must follow.” 

Adults should avoid handling fireworks if they’re the least bit intoxicated, Gillespie says. Don’t use them if you’re wearing loose clothing, and make sure not to set off a firework near grass or brush that may spark. Make sure you have a bucket of water nearby, or at least know where the closest water supply is. 

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“And if a firework or firecracker is a dud and doesn’t go off the first time, do not attempt to fix and relight it. Get rid of it,” Gillespie says. 

If you choose to handle fireworks at home this Fourth of July (and only if it’s legal in your state), be smart and be careful. According to the American College of Emergency Physicians, here’s the full list of dos and don’ts for staying safe:

DO have knowledgeable supervision by an experienced adult if you choose to use fireworks.

DO buy fireworks from reputable dealers.

DO read warning labels and follow all instructions.

DO keep a bucket of water or fire extinguisher on hand.

DO light fireworks one at a time.

DO dispose of all fireworks properly.

DONT give any fireworks, including sparklers, to small children; older children should be supervised by a responsible adult.

DONT light fireworks indoors or near other objects.

DONT place your body over a fireworks device when trying to light the fuse and immediately back up to a safe distance after you light it.

DONT point or throw fireworks at another person, ever.

DONT try to relight or pick up fireworks that have not ignited fully.

DONT wear loose clothing while using any fireworks.

DONT set off fireworks in glass or metal containers — the fragments can cause severe injury.

DONT carry fireworks in a pocket.

DONT try to relight or handle malfunctioning fireworks.

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