One moment, the boy was playing with friends. The next, he was blind in one eye because of a fireworks accident.

Pediatric ophthalmologist David Epley, M.D., recalls the 12-year-old boy was "blowing up" objects with friends using an illegal M-80 bottle rocket. A tuna can they had placed under the M-80 exploded, driving a shard of metal a distance of 30 feet and into the boy's eye.

The metal lacerated his cornea and ruptured his lens before settling in the back wall of his eye, tearing the retina in the process. The damage to his retina could not be fixed.

"In one instant, he went from normal vision, to blind in that eye forever," said Dr. Epley.

Overall, more than 9,000 fireworks injuries happen each year on average in the United States, with roughly 1 in 8 fireworks injuries harming the eyes, according to the most recent fireworks injury report  from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (PDF). Common fireworks eye injuries include burns, lacerations, abrasions, retinal detachment, optic nerve damage and ruptured eyeballs.

Those injured are not necessarily handling the explosives themselves. In fact, nearly half of people injured by fireworks are bystanders, according to an international study (PDF). Children are frequent victims: 30 percent who sustained a fireworks injury near the Fourth of July holiday are age 15 and under, according to the commission report.

"Even sparklers can burn more than 1,000 degrees hotter than the boiling point of water," said Philip R. Rizzuto, M.D., ophthalmologist and communications secretary for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. "So, fireworks should not be thought of as toys, but devices that can cause third-degree burns. This is why people must be vigilant and take precautions to avoid the risk of serious eye injury."

Fireworks Safety Tips

The Academy advises that the best way to avoid a potentially blinding fireworks injury is by attending a professional public fireworks show rather than purchasing fireworks for home use.

For those who attend professional fireworks displays and/or live in communities surrounding the shows:

  • Respect safety barriers at fireworks shows and view fireworks from at least 500 feet away.
  • Do not touch unexploded fireworks; instead, immediately contact local fire or police departments to help.

For those who decide to purchase consumer fireworks because they live in states where they are legal, the Academy recommends the following safety tips to prevent eye injuries:

  • Never let young children play with fireworks of any type, even sparklers.
  • People who handle fireworks should always wear protective eyewear that meets the parameters set by the American National Standards Institute and ensure that all bystanders are also wearing eye protection.
  • Leave the lighting of professional-grade fireworks to trained pyrotechnicians.

What to do for a fireworks eye injury

If an eye injury from fireworks occurs, remember:

  • Seek medical attention immediately.
  • Do not rub your eyes.
  • Do not rinse your eyes.
  • Do not apply pressure.
  • Do not remove any objects that are stuck in the eye. 
  • Do not apply ointments or take any blood-thinning pain medications such as aspirin or ibuprofen.

Learn more by watching EyeSmart's fireworks video and listening to a fireworks radio message (mp3 audio). Also available en Español (mp3 audio).

Revised by Shirley Dang on June 18, 2014

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