It’s fireworks night in the UK – the day when we celebrate a small group of terrorists nearly managing to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 by, er, setting fire to stuff. No, it makes perfect sense, honestly, because…. look, it’s fun, all right?
Anyway, logical or not, Brits light fireworks on this day to mark the occasion. Fireworks, of course, are dangerous things, and there’s been more than one petition to ban their sale to members of the general public because of safety concerns. It hasn’t happened yet, but public firework displays, rather than private ones at home, are more and more popular.
Which brings me to this snippet from a letter a friend of mine recently received.
In case you can’t read it, it says:
“NO SPARKLERS PLEASE – with so many children runni[ng] around, we believe it is too dangerous fro children to be [words missing] lighted sparklers around.
Last year we had a few incidents of children drinking the [words missing] glowsticks – please advise against this.”
Now there are some words missing here, but it’s fairly clear that sparklers are prohibited at this event, and it seems to be suggesting that children have managed to get into, and swallow, the contents of glowsticks. But they, by contrast, haven’t been banned. Indeed, parents are merely being asked to “advise” against it.
Does this seem like an appropriate response? Well, let’s see…
What are these things? Let’s begin with sparklers. They’re hand-held fireworks, usually made of a stiff metal wire, about 20 cm long, the end of which is dipped in a thick mixture of metallic particles, fuel and an oxidising agent. The metal particles are most commonly magnesium and/or iron. The fuel usually involves charcoal, and the oxidiser is likely to be potassium nitrate. Sometimes metal salts are also added to produce pretty colours.
Sparklers are designed to burn hot and fast. The chemical-dipped end can reach temperatures between 1000-1600 oC, but the bit you hold doesn’t have time to heat up before the firework goes out (although gloves are still recommended). The sparks, likewise, are extremely hot but burn out in seconds. This makes sparklers relatively safe, if they’re held well way from the face and body, and if the hot end isn’t touched.
If. Every year there are injuries. Sparkler injuries aren’t recorded separately from other firework injuries in the UK, but the data we do have suggest we might be looking at a few thousand A&E admissions each year, and probably a lot more minor injuries which are treated at home.
The biggest danger comes from people, usually children, picking up ‘spent’ sparklers. The burny end takes a long time to cool down, but once the sparkles are finished and it’s stopped glowing it’s impossible to judge how hot it is just by looking.
The burns caused by picking up hot sparklers are undoubtedly very, very nasty, but they’re also relatively easy to avoid. Supply buckets of cold water, and drill everyone to put their spent sparklers into the buckets as soon as they go out. Hazard minimised. Well, assuming everyone follows instructions of course, which isn’t always a given. Other risks are people getting poked with hot sparkers – which can be avoided by insisting sparkler-users stand in a line, facing the same way, with plenty of space in front of them – and people lighting several sparklers at once and getting a flare. Again, fairly easily avoided in a public setting, where you can threaten and nag everyone about safety and keep an eye on what they’re doing.
Although I do understand the instinct to simply ban the potentially-dangerous thing, and thus remove the risk, the idea does worry me a little bit. I was born in the 70s and I grew up with fire. I remember the coal truck delivering coal to us and our neighbours. I was taught how to light a match at an early age, and cautioned not to play with them (and then I did, obviously, because in those days it was usual for kids to spend hours and hours entirely unsupervised – but fortunately I emerged unscathed). Pretty much everyone kept a supply of candles in a drawer, in case the lights went out. And bonfires were a semi-regular event – this being long before garden waste collections.
These days things are very different. It’s not unusual to meet a child who, by age 11, has never lit a match. If their home oven and hob are electric, they may never have seen a flame outside of yearly birthday cake candles. But so what? You may be thinking. Aren’t fewer burns and house fires a good thing?
Of course they are, but people who’ve never dealt with fire tend to panic when faced with it. If the only flame you’ve ever met is a birthday cake candle, your instinct might well be to blow when faced with something bigger. This can be disastrous – it can make the fire worse, and it can spread hot embers to other nearby flammable items.
I’m personally of the opinion that children ought to be taught to handle fire safely, how to safely extinguish a small fire, when to call in the experts, and not to disintegrate into hysterics the presence of anything warmer than a cup of tea. Sparklers, I think, can be part of that. Particularly if they’re used in a well-supervised setting, with plenty of safety measures and guidance on-hand. (As opposed to, say, picking them up for the first time at university with some drunk mates, setting fire to half a dozen at once and immediately dropping them.)
Now. Onto glowsticks. They’re pretty neat, aren’t they? We’ve already established that I’m quite old, and I remember these appearing in shops for the first time, sometime in the very early 90s, and being utterly mesmerised by that eerie, cold light.
They work thanks to two chemicals. Usually, these are hydrogen peroxide (H2O2 – also used to bleach hair, as a general disinfectant, and as the subject of a well-known punny joke involving two scientists in a bar) and another solution containing a phenyl oxalate ester and a fluorescent dye.
These two solutions are separated, with the hydrogen peroxide in a thin-walled, sealed glass vial which is floating in the mixture of ester and dye solution. The whole thing is then sealed in a tough, plastic coating. When you bend the glowstick the glass breaks, the chemicals mix, and a series of chemical reactions happen which ultimately produce light.
Which is all very well. Certainly nice and safe, you’d think. Glowsticks don’t get hot. The chemicals are all sealed in a tube. What could go wrong?
I thought that too, once. Until I gave some glowsticks to some teenagers and they, being teenagers, immediately ripped them apart. You see, it’s actually not that difficult to break the outer plastic coating, particularly on those thin glow sticks that are often used to make bracelets and necklaces. Scissors will do it easily, and teeth will also work, with a bit of determination.
How dangerous is that? Well… it’s almost impossible to get into a glowstick without activating it (the glass vial will break), so it’s less the reactants we need to worry about, more the products.
And those are? Firstly, carbon dioxide, which is no big deal. We breathe that in and out all the time. Then there’s some activated fluorescent dye. Now, these vary by colour and by manufacturer, but as a general rule they’re not something anyone should be drinking. Some fluorescent dyes are known to cause adverse reactions such as nausea and vomiting, and if someone turns out to be allergic to the dye the consequences could be serious. This is fairly unlikely, but still.
Another product of the chemical reactions is phenol, which is potentially very nasty stuff, and definitely not something anyone should be getting on their skin if they can avoid it, let alone drinking.
And then, of course, let’s not forget the broken glass. Inside every activated glowstick are fragments of broken glass – it’s how they’re designed to work. If you break the plastic coating, that glass is exposed. If someone drinks the solution inside a glow stick they could, potentially, swallow that glass. Do I need to spell out the fact that this would be a Bad Thing™?
The thing with hazards is that, sometimes, something that’s obviously risky actually ends up being pretty safe. Because people take care over it. They put safety precautions in place. They write risk assessments. They think.
Whereas something that everyone assumes is safe can actually be more dangerous, precisely because no one thinks about it. How many people know that glowsticks contain broken glass, for instance? Probably not the writer of that letter back there, else they might have used stronger language than “please advise against this.”
So glowsticks or sparklers? Personally, I’d have both. Light on a dark night, after all, is endlessly fascinating. But I’d make sure the sparkler users had buckets of water, cordons and someone to supervise. And glowstick users also ought to be supervised (at least by their parents), warned in the strongest terms not to attempt to break the plastic, and all efforts should be made to ensure that the pretty glowy things don’t fall into the hands of a child still young enough to immediately stuff everything into his or her mouth.
The most important thing about managing risks is not to eliminate every potentially hazardous thing, but rather to understand and plan for the dangers.
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Hi Kat, I often wondered what was in glow sticks, then forgot to google them.
I grew up on a farm that had no electricity at all ( well we did have batteries, but they were not always very reliable ) We each had a paraffin ‘Kelly’ lamp for indoors, a couple of hurricane lanterns for outside use, milking and the like and dad had a Tilley lamp. We also had gas lighting down stairs, but because the mantles were expensive and fragile, we didn’t have them upstairs. We had open fires too and a Rayburn ( still in use ). Got to be a dab hand at fire lighting, we always carried matches, even though we didn’t really need to. I actually nearly set our part of the moors alight….. Probably not my finest hour, but at least we managed to put it out.
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Knowing how to put out a fire is a very useful skill!
So very true 🙂 ! I suppose not setting fire to things would have been better though. As for which is riskier, I think glow sticks are, as their hazards are less obvious. I would never have thought of dismantling one, let alone drinking the contents. I did manage to burn myself on a sparkler once. Do you remember those ‘indoor’ fireworks? Now there was an accident waiting to happen. Tea lights are not that safe either.
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Well that’s the thing, I think, anything is dangerous if you’re careless about it. And most things can be safe, handled properly.
Hello Kat, Do you print all comments ? Or do you select and print?
As a chemist, do you have an opinion on the importance of Silica in the human body
No, I don’t approve all comments. As it says at the bottom of this post, I delete offensive comments. I also delete any comment which refers to a post which has comments disabled. I’m not going to get into a discussion about silica here, on this post about fireworks, because it’s irrelevant.
Just to reiterate, there is no point writing lengthy posts about silica, or alkaline diets, in the comments on this post. They WILL be deleted, since they refer to a post which has comments closed.
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Um, I reckon if you drink a glow stick, silica will be involved….Not sure about alkalising anything, but a Darwin Award may be issued….
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Ooh yes, good point!
Sharp silica points! Eurgh.
Mmm, I get your point.
Thanks for the heads up for me to to be able to referance your previous material on the lemon akalinity myth. I have used some of your info on my own site.
Thank You :<)) credits ref : http://www.healthier.tips/lemon-water-morning-tonic
Cheers have a nice Xmas and a rewarding 2017, Mike
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Hi, there! I’m a little late to the party and just found this fun article. I worked at poison control (it’s a US kind of thing) for many years and am currently working on a book on accidental exposures to household products, and I would just like to point out that with glowsticks as with everything, the dose makes the poison. Ingestion of glow product liquid is very, very common and in most cases cause no symptoms at all, although some children (and teens!) do report mild burning in the mouth for a short time. I never had anyone encounter the glass from the inner capsule, but have had folks swallow glass shards from other items (eg, Christmas ornaments) without the kind of problems we might expect. In fact I’ve known people to swallow AA batteries and pass them uneventfully, although how that is even possible I cannot say . . .
Fair enough! Good points.