Millennium danger of giant fireworks

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The Independent Online
SAFETY campaigners have warned that stockpiles of fireworks hoarded in British homes could pose a safety risk during the New Year celebrations.

People are storing rockets, mortars and airbombs despite a voluntary agreement between the Government and manufacturers restricting their sale until after Christmas.

In fact, fireworks have been in many shops continuously since before Guy Fawkes night, allowing potentially lethal collections to be amassed. Campaigners are pressing the Government to ban the new generation of super- sized fireworks, which can cost as much as pounds 200 each.

Supermarket giant J Sainsbury has been accused of setting a disastrous example by refusing to stick to the Government-backed limits. Fireworks will be available in its stores for most of this month. But they have also been available non-stop from smaller retailers and by mail order via the internet.

Safety officers working for Birmingham council were so alarmed that they carried out an investigation. "People are currently buying large fireworks costing pounds 70 or more each," says their report. "These are perfectly legal but come with the statutory warning that onlookers should not be within 25 metres of the firework when it is ignited." Few British suburban gardens have that sort of space.

Examples include the "Display in a Box", an interfused sequence of 147 tubes, each one a firework in its own right. It costs pounds 190. Another is a powerful 4ft-high rocket. "If not fired vertically [the rocket] has the potential to cause injury and damage. Trading standards officers are aware of a similar rocket shattering a car windscreen," the report said.

Although the number of injuries from fireworks is declining, the number involving large fireworks has risen.

Noel Tobin, director of the National Campaign for Firework Safety, said: "People have been stockpiling fireworks for a considerable period. Many of these are from abroad and won't meet British safety standards."

He has been in angry correspondence with J Sainsbury and its Homebase subsidiary. Both told him they need a three-week period to ensure good sales. This is despite the Government request to bar millennium sales until 27 December. "I'm outraged," he said. "Morality doesn't come into it when it comes to making a profit."

Posing as a potential customer, the Independent on Sunday contacted a Gloucester firework seller. It told us it was starting to dispatch from tomorrow, and "yours could go out next Wednesday".

A trading standards officer from Essex reported that a company recently delivered four tons of fireworks to a man who was neither trained nor registered as a fireworks organiser.

Britain has the worst rate of firework injuries in Europe and the US, according to figures from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. Accidents with fireworks are likely to soar as millennium celebrations intensify.

The situation is not helped by the fact that, although shopkeepers should not sell fireworks to anyone aged under 18, many do - helped by the bizarre "strict liability" law which means that shopkeepers can claim that if someone "looked 18" they are not guilty.

Successive governments have refused to legislate over firework safety. Britain, says Mr Tobin, has a higher rate of injuries than the rest of Europe, North America, Australia and Japan. He also claims that many injuries are not reported.

Of last year's 831 injuries, 226 were caused by hooliganism. More than 250 injuries occurred in the street, not at a display or in a garden; 303 injuries were to children under 13 and 125 to those aged 13 to 15.

There are fears that the toll of firework injuries is growing as Bonfire Night celebrations have lasted a month and may well spill over into the New Year celebrations.

"This is a huge problem," said Hazel Blears, Labour MP for Salford. "People have been terrorised. In my constituency in the last few weeks there have been horrific incidents where youngsters have been putting explosives into the exhausts of cars. The latest trick involves making a whole telephone box explode."

This stunt is now so popular that British Telecom cannot replace the glass fast enough.

Essex Tory MP Sir Teddy Taylor proposed an unsuccessful 10-minute Bill in May this year to ban firework sales to the public and restrict fireworks to properly organised displays.

"That is the only way to control the problem," he said.

Research by Deborah Shennan