The Rocket’s Red Glare: Eye Damage and Fireworks

Crowd watching fireworks and celebrating new year eve

Credit: iStock

The warm weather of July, smell of hot dogs on the grill and the “rocket’s red glare” of fireworks in the sky make Independence Day a favorite holiday for many people. Fireworks have been around for centuries and originated in China. Saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal combined in paper tubes were some of the world’s first firecrackers. Modern fireworks have the same core ingredients, but have changed to create larger, more colorful displays for eyes to take in.

Although fireworks are used for many forms of celebration, the dangers and injuries that come with them are no cause to celebrate. Since the early 1980s, researchers have studied the impact of fireworks on eye injury and how to prevent them.

The cornea—the clear front covering—of the eye allows light rays to bend in such a way that light can enter the eye. The cornea also acts as a shield to prevent anything else from entering the eye. With the help of the lens—similar to a camera’s lens—the cornea focuses the light to the back of the eye. The retina absorbs and converts the light into electrochemical impulses that are sent to the brain through optic nerves. Each component of the eye plays an important role in transmitting the bursts of lights from fireworks to our brains.

A 2018 study showed that eye trauma in the U. S. typically increases from May through July. The timing near the Fourth of July is not a coincidence. Injuries varied from bruises around the eye, getting foreign bodies—dust, metal or plastic fragments, for example—in the eyes and injuries to the cornea, the clear covering of the eye. Most of the cases reported in the study were men under the age of 60—watch out guys!

These tips can help prevent you from hurting your eyes—or any other part of your body—as you display your patriotic pride:

  • Research fireworks laws where you live. They aren’t legal in all states.
  • Always have an adult supervise fireworks activities, especially around young children.
  • Don’t buy fireworks wrapped in plain brown paper. This packaging often means they were made for professional displays meant for firework experts to handle.
  • Watch fireworks displays from a safe distance.
  • Call 911 immediately if someone is injured from fireworks.

Have a safe and happy holiday!

Liz CambronLiz Cambron is a PhD candidate in cellular and molecular biology at North Dakota State University. The Greenlee Lab focuses on insect physiology, including how environmental stress impacts pollinators.

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