The fifth of November is the cause of an increasing number of frightful injuries, most of which are avoidable. Gerald Haigh has advice for those who want bangs without whimpers.
Last year, 1,574 people, half of them under 15, were injured during the weeks around Bonfire Night. This is not a huge figure compared, say, with deaths and injuries from road accidents, but the bare number hides some worrying realities. One is that in 1994, firework accidents took a 48 per cent leap from only just over 1,000 the year before. So there is a fear that things may be slipping back to where they were over 30 years ago.
In 1968 3,000 people were injured, and 1,000 of them were detained in hospital. The following year BBC's Man Alive did a hard-hitting documentary on firework safety, and as a result the industry itself took matters in hand. They reduced the power of bangers, and removed from the market many of the more dangerous fireworks the "jumping jacks", for example, that chased us terrifyingly around when we were children. By 1975 accidents were dramatically down, with only 50 people being kept overnight in hospital. For almost 20 years, this was the pattern. Last year's sudden jump rings warning bells.
Firework injuries to children are often distressing and disfiguring. In 1994 a 10-year-old boy was severely burned about the back, bottom, legs and head when his older brother threw a banger on to the foam filled settee where he was sitting. In another typical accident, a small child picked up a spent sparkler. Still fiercely hot, it burned through his glove and caused deep burns to his hand.
Perhaps even more upsetting is the fact that a quarter of the injuries were to the eyes. Margaret Perry, Senior Casualty Sister at Birmingham Eye Hospital, sees the results. "They range from little sparky bits in the eye that are painful but not dangerous right up to blindness caused by a totally melted cornea. The lids can be a problem too. If they get burned, they scar and shrink away from the eye, and this needs plastic surgery."
While the stupidity of banger throwing is obvious, very many injuries are caused by innocent-looking sparklers. A sparkler burns at the fierce, industrial level temperature of 1500 degrees Celsius and yet it is enormously attractive to little eyes and hands. There were over 250 sparkler injuries last year, with 57 children under five taken to hospital, compared with less than 100 in 1990.
RoSPA (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) publishes a list of safety rules for sparklers, which says, "When the sparkler has finished, put it into a bucket of cold water straight away and leave it there." This simple precaution alone would save many precious little hands and fingers.
One safe answer, which we use at the school where I am a governor, is to sell Lite-Rope Necklaces. These are flexible, internally-lit tubes, cold to the touch, about 60cm long and 5cm in diameter, with a little plastic connector so you can form a loop. They work from a non-toxic chemical reaction going on inside. Children love to wave them around and make them into haloes and necklaces. We sell them for Pounds 1 each, which is little more than their cost price of Pounds 43 for a box of 50, but some schools charge more and use them as a fund raiser.
Nobody is sure why fireworks accidents are on the increase. Safety organisations and the UK fireworks industry regret, for example, that the Government's general policy of cutting down on regulations has since 1993 allowed fireworks to be imported which do not conform to the British Standard. More recently, specific regulations banning the sale of fireworks to under-16s have ceased, and the only law covering this area now is one dating from Victorian times, prohibiting the sale of explosives to children. Just how much effect these changes have had is difficult to tell.
Certainly RoSPA urges people to buy fireworks from familiar manufacturers, made to British Standard 7114, and to get them from reputable shops rather than from the back of container lorries, short lease shops, or car boot sales.
Fireworks are not the only hazard. The garden bonfire can, and does, cause fatal injuries, usually because someone with more enthusiasm than sense has poured petrol or paraffin on it. Firefighters across the country know the story well. As assistant divisional officer Allan Rotchell of the West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service says, "people put petrol on bonfires with monotonous regularity. What usually happens is that it splashes on their clothes and then there's a nice trail of vapour from them to the fire."
Last year a five-year-old boy in the Midlands was killed by a pub bonfire and in a separate typical incident a 12-year-old was severely injured in a back garden. In both cases, someone had livened things up with a can of petrol. Allan Rotchell's advice is unequivocal. "Do not put petrol or any other accelerant on a bonfire."
Why do otherwise sensible people pour petrol on bonfires? Richard Tibenham of RoSPA explains, with a warning to the organisers of school and PTA events. "It's when you have a soggy fire and a waiting public that impatience can set in."
The Fire Service wants people to go to professionally organised displays. The category showing the biggest percentage increase in accidents from 1993 to 1994 in fact (365 to 642) was back garden bonfires. One safety officer speculated that the home bonfire keeps its popularity because of the fascination that men have with being in charge of lighting fires and controlling them.
Some PTA and school groups refuse to have bonfires, because they do not want the responsibility. Just possibly, though, a safely run school bonfire may save someone from a back garden accident.
On Monday November 6, the statistical likelihood is that all your children will be safely back in school, unharmed. All the same, it might be worth at least looking at the possibility of a school event for next year, taking your time over the coming months to examine the options and the various resources.