China's Fireworks a Trusted Import

By Xiyun Yang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 4, 2007

When you light your sparklers and paper volcanoes this Fourth of July, you can be almost certain they were made in China. But unlike some brands of seafood, toys, tires or toothpaste, these Chinese products shouldn't be cause for alarm.

Nearly 99 percent of all fireworks sold legally in the United States are imported from China, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association, a trade group. Since they began to flood the U.S. market more than 20 years ago, these inherently hazardous imports have been aggressively regulated in a way that other Chinese-made goods often are not.

Soon after U.S.-China trade ties were reestablished in the late-1970s, the American fireworks industry turned back to the country where they were invented. Because fireworks need to be made by hand, the newly opened Chinese market presented low labor costs as well as a centuries-old reputation.

"It's an economic issue as much as it is an issue of national pride for China," said John Rogers, executive director of the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory, which tests about 40,000 shipments of Chinese fireworks a year.

When Chinese-made fireworks flooded the market in the late-'80s, they presented the same quality-control issues that other industries are facing now. According to the laboratory, 75 percent of Chinese fireworks failed to meet minimum government standards.

But regulation and enforcement of safety standards for fireworks have evolved over time in a way that controls on Chinese food and drug imports have not. The industry created the standards laboratory, which has a team of about 50 people in China who oversee production of 75 percent of the fireworks exported to the United States.

"Now there are other issues with Chinese trade, but this is a system that works," said Julie Heckman, a spokeswoman for the American Pyrotechnics Association.

In 2006, there were 3.4 injuries per 100,000 pounds of imported fireworks, down from 8 injuries per 100,000 pounds in 1997, according to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission. None of the 11 fireworks-related deaths last year were the result of manufacturing malfunctions, according to commission reports. Most injuries related to fireworks are a result of misuse, said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the commission.

"Safety sells," Heckman said. "We knew that if we wanted to survive, we had to play an active role."

Still, illegal fireworks, both imported and domestically produced, remain an issue. D.C. police and fire officials announced that they had confiscated 100 boxes of illegal fireworks since the weekend, and fireworks remain on the Consumer Product Safety Commission's watch list of four products imported from China.

"There is a market there for big bangs, people who believe that bigger is better," said Rogers, who worked for the safety commission before moving to the standards lab.

The commission spot-checks shipments at points of entry and, along with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, engages in undercover purchases at roadside stands. Although 31 percent of fireworks sampled on their way into the country in 2006 were not up to federal safety standards, most of those sampled were from a small number of lesser-known manufacturers, Wolfson said.

"In comparison with where the industry had been before," Rogers said, "there's been very substantial progress."

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