SUNDAY, July 2, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- It's a childhood memory shared by many in America -- gathering with friends and family to shoot off store-bought fireworks in celebration of the nation's independence.
But while the pungent scent of spent gunpowder and the shrieking sound of rockets may inspire nostalgia, this is one tradition that deserves to fizzle out, safety experts say.
And with the long holiday weekend now underway, experts warn that you're safest when you aren't around fireworks.
"Let professionals handle them. That's the take-home message," said Dr. Joseph Miller, associate professor of ophthalmology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and chairman of Prevent Blindness America's pediatric advisory committee. "Go to a fireworks display. Don't handle them yourself," Miller suggested.
Safety groups like the National Fire Prevention Association believe that message so strongly that they refuse to offer any safety advice for fireworks, because such advice could be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of them.
"We don't do any safety tips using fireworks, because we don't believe people should be using them," said Lorraine Carli, spokeswoman for the fire prevention association.
Fireworks caused an estimated 9,600 injuries treated in U.S. emergency rooms in 2004, according to data compiled by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. That reflected an increase of 300 cases from the previous year.
Two of every three of those injuries occurred in the one-month period surrounding the Fourth of July, according to the commission's report.
Hands were the most commonly injured part of the body, occurring in 2,200 cases in 2004. The eyes and the head and face were the second-most commonly injured locations, occurring in 1,400 cases each.
To make matters worse, the children who marvel at the brilliant glitter and percussive blasts are often the ones who make the trip to the emergency room.
About 40 percent of fireworks injuries in 2004 were to children 15 and younger. Children 5 to 9 years old have the highest injury rate of all -- 30 percent.
"When you look at the numbers of injuries and burns, they're not safe," Carli said. "If you played with them as a child and you didn't have an injury, you were lucky."
Boys are three times more likely than girls to be injured by fireworks. "It's more of a natural curiosity for boys than girls to be playing with fireworks," Carli explained.
Experts also warn that requiring children to watch from the sidelines while adults set off the fireworks doesn't guarantee their safety. The data shows that bystanders are more often injured by fireworks than the people setting them off.
"It's not just you that gets hurt," Miller said. "It's someone who wasn't playing with the fireworks but was in the area."
Rockets are the most dangerous type of firework, causing about a quarter of all injuries, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
"Bottle rockets are the worst, in my experience," Miller said. "They seem to be cute and little, but they really pack a wallop. They tend to be played with by children who aim at each other and then let them fly."
Firecrackers are next, causing about one in five injuries. Illegal firecrackers -- ones so powerful they are banned by federal law -- cause another 14 percent of total injuries.
Even seemingly safe fireworks devices like sparklers, fountains, snakes, party poppers and ground spinners also cause damage and destruction. Sparklers, fountains, and related novelties together account for one-fourth of emergency-room fireworks injuries -- the same percentage as bottle rockets.
Sparklers are particularly seductive because they seem harmless, but they can heat up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. That's three times the heat needed to set wood on fire and can cause horrible burns. Sparklers cause as many injuries as illegal fireworks, around 14 percent.
"They're beautiful, but they're hot," Miller said. "A lot of burns happen with sparklers."
Property also is endangered by fireworks, according to the National Fire Prevention Association. In 2002, there were 3,000 reported structure or vehicle fires started by fireworks, the latest in a four-year growth in such fires. The fires resulted in 60 people injured and $29 million in property damage.
If you need any more convincing, consider this: Most of the physical damage caused by fireworks is permanent, leaving lasting scars on victims.
"I remember meeting a medical school applicant who lost his hand playing with fireworks as a child," Miller said. "They can have consequences you'll have to deal with the rest of your life."
To learn more, visit the U.S. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.