In our online survey of fireworks petitioners, people with a very wide range of health conditions and disabilities told us that fireworks caused them problems.
We invited survey respondents and others, including those representing organisations which support people with health conditions and disabilities, to a deliberative workshop in Westminster.
The discussion was Chaired by our Chair, Helen Jones MP, and facilitated by House of Commons staff.
Eight members of the public took part, in two groups:
1. People with learning disabilities and their support workers;
2. Representatives of Anxiety UK, the British Tinnitus Association and a paediatric doctor specialising in audiology.
The first part of the workshop was intended to provide a fuller understanding of the experiences of people adversely affected by fireworks; in part two the groups discussed the case for a ban on public sale and use of fireworks and several compromise solutions, including quieter fireworks, greater restrictions on who could use them or when they could be used, stricter penalties for fireworks misuse and awareness-raising.
The group was not against fireworks per se and did not want to “spoil people’s fun”. The group was, however, generally concerned about the effects of fireworks on people, animals and property. They were concerned about how late at night they were set off and how often they were set off throughout the year.
While they liked the concept of fireworks, the main problem was they were just too loud.
There was a belief that children aged 13–16 were buying and using fireworks. They were concerned about local misuse of fireworks, including close to residential properties, with “kids letting them off randomly”. It was worst in the summer and around bonfire night. Fireworks made them jumpy and they found it difficult to sleep when there were fireworks. One person knew of someone for whom fireworks noise caused seizures.
People in group 2 noted that noise phobia was a recognised condition, and that sudden, unexpected noise was problematic for people with a range of noise phobias, hearing problems, anxiety disorders and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Panic attacks instigated by fireworks noise were a common experience for these people.
PTSD was often associated in public consciousness with military service, but it was in fact much more widely diagnosed in the general population in relation to a diverse range of traumatic experiences.
The effects of fireworks could be severe for people with hyperacusis (heightened sensitivity to sound, which affected about 1 in 20 people and was more prevalent among children with autistic spectrum disorders).
While people expected fireworks noise in November and could often take actions to prepare for it, unexpected fireworks noise at other times of the year was more difficult to cope with.
The effects of fireworks noise were often doubly difficult for people with support pets, which could also be adversely affected. It was noted that guide dogs could often be affected not only by the noise but also by the smell of fireworks.
The coping strategies deployed by people affected by fireworks often exacerbated pre-existing feelings of isolation. People would often stay in the house, wearing ear defenders or playing loud music. Others would travel to remote areas to get away from the noise. This could magnify loneliness and a sense of “not being part of the fun”.
Sometimes the effects were exacerbated by a lack of family support or understanding. Family life could be impinged on, as affected people could become moody and depressed.
The group discussed some technical aspects of the effects of fireworks noise on audiology. The group was uncertain about how “safe distances” for decibel levels were calculated and there was a feeling they did not sufficiently take into account potential effects on people’s hearing. It was noted that the effects from anti-social use of fireworks, closer to people than the recommended safe distances, could be very damaging to hearing.
The group was concerned that the marketing approach for fireworks sold on the internet seemed to promote the loudness of fireworks. The paediatric doctor in the group thought this was unacceptable. The group agreed there needed to be a public health approach to marketing, advertising and packaging, with prominent health warnings about the potential effects on hearing. There needed to be much greater awareness of the safe distances required for domestic garden fireworks. It was noted that many gardens were much too small for safe use.
It was not always volume that was the problem. Often effects were exacerbated by the prolonged period of time over which fireworks now tended to be set off—in many places from October to January.
Some in the group didn’t support a ban on public sales and use. They believed people would find a way of buying them anyway. Others, while supporting a ban, acknowledged it might be difficult to enforce and therefore might not be effective.
The group liked the idea of quieter fireworks and wanted them to be more widely available.
There was some support for raising the age restriction for buying fireworks to 21, although there was some scepticism about how effectively this could be enforced.
The group discussed curfew restrictions. There was a view that 11pm was reasonable, though some doubt about this on “school nights” and, again, scepticism about enforceability.
There was support for restricting fireworks use to special occasions such as Diwali, Bonfire Night and New Year’s Eve. Some in the group believed fireworks should only be used on the weekends either side of 5 November. One person felt they should be restricted to 5 November only.
The group discussed penalties for fireworks misuse. They felt that the fines in place were appropriate and would be sufficient to deter people, if only they were properly enforced.
There was strong support for public awareness-raising. The group wanted to see more “public service announcements” about potential dangers of fireworks and the adverse effects on some groups of people. The was uncertainty about whether fireworks awareness public information films were still made; the group felt that they should be brought back. They believed there should be widespread campaigns like the anti-drinking-driving campaigns around Christmas. They believed young people should be made aware in schools and youth centres. Communities should run “tell your neighbours” campaigns, to encourage people to inform others when they were planning fireworks displays.
The group felt that packaging of fireworks should be looked at. Fireworks were packaged to “look fun”. There was support for plain packaging of fireworks.
There was also support for a licensing/permit approach for all displays, including small garden displays, with training available on how to set fireworks off safely and support for better training of fireworks retailers. The group could not reach a consensus on whether sales should be restricted to specially licensed retailers.
In group two there was some support for quieter fireworks, though it was noted this was unlikely to provide the whole solution and there were, in any case, technical limitations to how quiet fireworks could be. There was, however, a perception that fireworks had got louder in recent years, so the group believed there would be value in making fireworks quieter.
There was strong support for “revenue-neutral” local authority permit schemes, in which people wishing to set off fireworks would be required to purchase a permit. Permit fees would be on a sliding scale depending on the size of the fireworks event. Retailers would be prevented from selling fireworks to anyone without a permit. Dates and times of displayed would be published by the local authority.
There was more qualified support for stricter penalties for fireworks misuse, particularly where the misuse caused real harm to people. But it was noted that fireworks offences and penalties were generally difficult to enforce.
The group believed more could be done to raise awareness about the potentially damaging effects of fireworks on some groups of people. A campaign needed to somehow build “peer-pressure” that misuse and anti-social behaviour with fireworks was as socially unacceptable as drink-driving had become in recent decades.
Published: 5 November 2019