By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — As the Fourth of July approaches, the sound of fireworks begins to grow louder and the problems they create for people, pets and wildlife become more pronounced.
“I don’t like to hear fireworks at 10:30 at night. They keep me awake,” Lenora Gilson, 92, of North Providence said during a recent Statehouse hearing to ban fireworks in Rhode Island.
Gilson testified to the starling and excessive noise that some say has worsened since low-level fireworks were legalized in 2010. Two bills (S431 and H5187) seek to ban these so-called “consumer fireworks” while still allowing for large professional fireworks shows.
Residents in both densely built neighborhoods and in more spacious suburbs testified that the unexpected pop and bang of firecrackers, bottle rockets and cherry bombs disturbs the neighborhood calm. The gunshot-like bursts cause the elderly to activate emergency lifelines, they frighten sleeping children and disturb veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to testimony.
“Quality of life for residents has deteriorated. Police department are overwhelmed with this issue and it needs to be addressed,” Mary Lyons, a North Providence resident, said at the April 7 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Lyons and other North Providence residents have been active in trying to eliminate Class C fireworks, which they say has made the illegal and louder firecrackers and aerial fireworks more permissible. A review of police reports she conducted from 16 cities and towns found 2,409 fireworks-related complaints between 2012-2014.
Lyons said local police don’t have the money to go after illegal fireworks or an effective way to catch people in the act. “The police departments are doing everything they can,” she said. “They’re asking now for help from the state.”
Fireworks cause injuries
At a Feb. 24 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, Dr. Selim Suner, an emergency room physician at Rhode Island Hospital, showed photos of fireworks victims he has treated. One had a fractured skull, eye injuries, and burns to the face and hands.
“We see these injuries over and over again, year after year,” Suner said.
Rhode Island, he said, experiences some 200 firework-related injuries annually. National statistics reveal that half of the injuries are to fingers and hands. Most of the rest are to the face and eyes. Half of those injured are between the ages of 10 and 19.
“Increased access to fireworks will lead to more accidents and serious injuries, particularly involving children,” Suner said.
Pets also suffer. Frightened dogs, in particular, become distressed, jumping through windows and damaging doors as they seek to escape the noise. Many run off, and some rush into traffic and are hit by cars.
Fireworks cause birds to panic and abandon nesting areas, especially gulls and terns along the coast. In 2008, Gualala, Calif., cancelled its annual fireworks show after a study showed that seabirds abandoned their nests after the fireworks event.
The Audubon Society says that professional fireworks shows are generally not harmful to birds as long as the displays are sporadic. A single, larger show allows birds to flee to a quieter location, something that neighborhood fireworks may prevent.
“If you want to see your fireworks and protect birds, too, the best thing to do is attend a commercial display, rather than setting off your own pyrotechnic devices,” according to a 2012 Audubon Society article.
Rhode Island law only allows non-aerial sparklers, fountains and spinners, known as Class C fireworks. Yet, small and large fireworks shows have other problems. In addition, to the physical litter, the smoke contains harmful chemicals, heavy metals and sulfur-coal compounds. Cadmium, lithium, copper and barium, which gives fireworks their colors, are linked to cancer and respiratory problems. These chemicals also can contaminate water supplies and recreational areas.
Barrington resident Sandra Wyatt oversees a 21-acre cove and tidal estuary for the local land trust. In June and July, she said, small, unauthorized aerial fireworks displays happen frequently on the beach. The fireworks threaten the conservation area’s fish, birds and marshland.
An American tradition
Eric Turner, a lobbyist for American Promotional Events, said fireworks are an American tradition dating back to the Revolutionary War. Most big firecrackers are banned across the country, while bottle rockets and other small aerial fireworks are sold in nearby states such as New Hampshire, he said.
Massachusetts, New Jersey and Delaware ban all fireworks. Class C fireworks, Turner said, allow people to use legal fireworks instead of buying illegal, more dangerous ones.
“When there is nothing legal to buy, they are going to buy (fireworks) out of the back of a truck,” Turner said. “They are going to go to New Hampshire. They are going to stop at South Carolina. They are going to find a way. But if it’s available in commerce, many, not all, will be very satisfied with this product.”
Fireworks have yet to kill anyone in Rhode Island, Turner said. He also said that legal fireworks raise tax revenue and help nonprofits that sell them at fundraisers.
The sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence, said the Class C exemption was passed in 2010 to help sales at mom-and-pop retailers. Today, he said, fireworks are being setoff all day and night.
“It’s truly a public nuisance,” he said.
The sponsor of the Senate bill, Sen. Donna Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket, suggested that the law should be re-written to ban fireworks in densely built areas, while allowing rural communities to continue to use consumer fireworks.
Both bills were held for further study.