Hot and Hurt

07.09.13

Fireworks, Lightning, Riding Lawnmowers and Other Summer Menaces

Every year, thousands of Americans set out to enjoy the summer and end up in the emergency room. From exploding grills and snapping alligators to the menace of lawnmowers and air conditioners, here are some of the myriad ways—some routine and some downright odd—that people get hurt in the summer. By Trevor Butterworth.

“It didn’t go well.” Occasionally, an emergency room doctor can’t resist quoting a patient on the terse form used to create a national sample of the injuries sustained by Americans. In this case, a 23-year-old male had tried to launch a bottle rocket out of his—well, let’s use the clinical term—rectum, and suffered scrotal, rectal, and hand burns in addition to making an ass of himself along the way to proving that the unlikely and improbable only require time and a large population.

Fireworks injuries, naturally, call to mind July 4, and the heightened probability that if you are determined to light up the night sky from sea to shining sea, something will misfire somewhere (this year a platform collapse in California sent Simi Valley’s entire deployment of pyrotechnics whizzing into the crowd, injuring 28 people). But if you look at the cases recorded by the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CSPC) National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), fireworks mishaps happen constantly throughout the summer.

By using a nationally representative sample of emergency rooms, the CSPC is able to estimate the likely number of injuries for the entire country and to see the patterns of human misfortune. Thus, roughly 7,500 of the 8,500 estimated accidents last year occurred between May 1 and September 1. Many involved ignition problems, which were suddenly resolved with the fireworks flaring up in someone’s hands, or rocketing into their faces, or just exploding. These resulted in trips to the ER for burns, corneal abrasions, and the odd amputation.

And then there are the strange ways people are destined, statistically, to cause themselves and others cruel and unusual punishment, which, in addition to the human rocket launcher in 2012, included the unlucky 53-year old-woman whose hair oil caught on fire after some kids accidentally shot a firework over her head. Unluckier still was the 47-year-old man whose “friends” thought it would be hilarious to light a Roman candle between his “buttock cheeks” while he was passed out drunk. His burns developed a distinctly unfunny bacterial infection.

Still, all three have a lot to be thankful for: six people died (PDF) in 2012 from fireworks accidents, mostly from pursuing—and achieving—a bigger, better (and in many cases, illegal) bang through building their own. In Omaha, 30-year-old Brad Vanzago and his dog died after the fireworks he was assembling on his porch exploded and demolished his house.

As for nature’s fireworks—lightning—June, July, and August are the deadliest months, and fishing is the activity most likely to put you at risk of being struck, according to a recent study by the National Weather Service (PDF). So far for 2013, there have been nine deaths caused by lightning strikes.

Nothing compares to the devastation caused by that god of carnage, the riding lawnmower.

A more conventional way of burning yourself over the summer involves that patio favorite, the outdoor grill. There were an estimated 2,783 accidents last summer that ended in a hospital visit, ranging from flash burns to exploding propane tanks. One grill turned into a flame-thrower for a 28-year-old woman after the propane hose came loose and sprayed her with flames. And of course, whether lit or not, grills—by the mere fact of being there—are fallen over and, even worse, fallen into.

The second element to a disastrous summer is water. Drowning is the obvious calamity and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 3,500 people drown in the U.S. each year. But on top of this, the CPSC estimated 78,364 swimming-related visits to the emergency room last summer, 42,220 of which were ear-related (water in the ear, inflammation, infection), while many others involved strains, sprains, and lacerations. People swim into pool walls, people swim into each other, and, in certain parts of the U.S., people swim into alligators. One 17-year-old male lost a forearm in 2012, while a 20-year-old was luckier and escaped with a just bite to his ankle. In the biting department, sharks, of course, are more likely to relieve you of your limbs while swimming, and 2012 tied with 2000 for the most attacks on record: 53, but, thankfully, only one fatality. Which means the most lethal predator of all in warm salt water might well be Vibria vulnificus—a flesh-eating bacterium that just killed an 83-year-old Louisiana man out fishing in the Gulf of Mexico after seawater splashed into an open cut. Vulnificus is more commonly acquired by eating raw oysters and shellfish and the CDC has recorded case-fatality rates exceeding 50 percent. The warmer the water, the greater the risk.

Inflatable water slides triggered an estimated 6,891 ER-worthy accidents, mostly from slips and falls, and mostly to those 12 and under. For the adults, water skiing caused an estimated 7,577 accidents, with fractured femurs and bruised buttocks—from hitting a wave or skimming the water—being common injuries. There was no national estimate for surfing accidents, but as one might imagine, sprains and strains figured heavily in the case reports—and there was an unusual and unpleasant case of contact dermatitis after a surfer wore an improperly rinsed wetsuit that had, unbeknownst to him, grown an inner layer of fungus and bacteria. Water tubing caused an estimated 7,136 accidents from people falling off, flipping over, or taking flight after a hard bounce. The latter misfortune escalated into tragedy after a 21-year-old landed on a rock in precisely the right way to snap her neck. She survived, but was paralyzed.

Rare but utterly terrifying are pool or spa “suction” accidents due to missing or removed suction outlet covers and an absence or failure of the suction protection systems. There were eight reported (PDF) incidents in 2012—six of them involving children—and ranged from limb and hair entrapment to two cases of disembowelment, which is what you can expect in .25 to 1.86 seconds when the wrong body part (the rectum) connects with an uncovered pump. Children are particularly at risk from this kind of accident because they lack weight and strength; fortunately, the two 3-year-old girls who endured this horror in 2012 were not badly injured; but in 2008, a 6-year-old girl was partly eviscerated and later died.

While fire and water are self-evidently dangerous, how about air? Well, if you want to throw out your back, pull a muscle, or crush your foot, try to cool off: 11,379 of the 16,213 estimated accidents in 2012 involving an air conditioner occurred during the summer, an excruciating catalogue of man versus machine with the machine coming out on top, sometimes literally. As for actually being in the air, the CSPC doesn’t track parasailing yet, and the Parasail Safety Council doesn’t break its accident and fatality data down by year; it says there have been an estimated 73 fatalities and 429 serious accidents in the past 30 years from an estimated 130 million airborne jaunts.

But if you really want to run the gantlet of risk this summer, the sneakiest element of all is earth, and the most sustained foe of good times is the lawn mower—along with his friend the garden trimmer. Lawn mowers were the source of an estimated 1,616 finger amputations in the U.S. last year, and 6,403 finger lacerations. One woman lost three toes after she slipped and her foot went under the mower (moral: wear safety boots not summer shoes). Lawn trimmers, meanwhile, scored an estimated 13,805 lacerations—and 5,797 eye injuries from whipping up stones and other debris (moral: wear proper eye protection, not sunglasses, which can shatter when struck).

Actually, the moral of gardening might be to hire a gardener if there’s serious mowing to be done; for nothing in the CPSC’s files, however, compares to the devastation caused by that god of carnage, the riding lawnmower. In the garden of earthly accidents-waiting-to-happen, you have just added speed to a machine with moving blades. You can fall off, you can flip the mower over and die from asphyxiation, you can misjudge the height of tree branches, you can speed over beehives and suffer the wrath of their occupants, and you can collide with all manner of things, including the 4-year-old child you didn’t realize was standing behind you and who you reversed over, amputating his foot and penis. All of these things happened in 2012.

Before you decide that the better part of caution is to stay indoors and let your garden grow wild, you need to remember that America is 308 million people strong, and to calculate your risk you’d really need to figure out the accident rate per mile of grass mowed against the number of people who actually mow lawns; and you’d need to do that with every other activity, hours spent grilling outdoors, total number of air conditioners moved or installed, and so on. Such figures would be hard to calculate precisely, but they would lower the rough odds (the accident rate per 100,000 people) even further. Still, thousands of people will go to emergency rooms around the country this summer with accidents identical or as odd as people suffered in 2012. Most will be treated and survive; some will have a summer they will—for the worst of reasons—never forget.

So treat these numbers as a reminder to be careful. If what you are about to do sounds goofy, chances are it’s a bad idea. Read the instructions and the warning labels and follow them: those tiresome paragraphs were built out of real human carelessness, bad luck, and suffering. Enjoy the summer—and may the odds be ever in your favor.

Trevor Butterworth is editor-at-large for STATS.org