Tags: Germany | fireworks | year | churches

Doctors, Churches Decry German Fireworks

Thursday, 31 Dec 2009 11:14 AM


BERLIN, Germany — For 51-and-a-half weeks of the year, Stephan Mainusch sells ice cream at his shop in the fashionable Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg.

But for the three days leading up to New Year’s Eve, the space behind the glass counter is crammed with an arsenal of fireworks with names like “Bombastic,” “Extreme Firepower” and “Hasta la vista.”

In these three days, Mainusch will sell up to eight crates (more than 280 cubic feet) worth of firecrackers and fireworks, earning enough money to cover the shop’s rent for three months.

“I don’t know if we could keep up the ice cream business if we did not have this for three days,” he said.

His is one small shop in this country of 82 million people which, on Thursday night, will be gripped by an uncharacteristic mayhem as millions of fireworks and firecrackers are released in an orgy of noise and smoke.

Silvester, as New Year’s Eve is called here, is the German nation’s one chance each year to buy and release fireworks legally — and in this brief window, it is a national obsession.

Last year, according to the Pyrotechnical Industry Association, Germans spent about $154 million on fireworks for New Year’s Eve. Though it probably derives from the ancient custom of scaring away evil spirits, the fascination with fireworks today is, despite the danger, as much a focal point for the family as the Christmas tree is for many Germans.

People take to the streets, parks, rooftops and public squares to hurl, drop and shoot fireworks and firecrackers of all shapes and sizes indiscriminately.

By Friday morning, Berlin’s silent streets, littered with colored paper-shrapnel, will look like the aftermath of a wedding and smell like the aftermath of a battle.

Yet amid this wild enthusiasm, police are worried about the growing dangers of illegally imported fireworks, while churches have sparked controversy by raising questions about the morality of effectively blowing up such large amounts of money.

Already, a 15-year-old boy in Berlin has been hospitalized after a firecracker detonated early in his hand.

Mainusch sells only government-approved fireworks at his ice cream store. He says families are increasingly safety-conscious, with a trend in sales away from hand-held rockets, toward battery-operated fireworks that can be denonated at a distance.

The problem is these safer models are competing against cheaper, more powerful, illegal fireworks, usually made in neighboring Poland. More bang for fewer bucks means they are popular with teenage boys.

It’s a particular problem this year, according to a Berlin police spokesman, because routine border checks between Germany and Poland were stopped in January.

“It’s worse this year — a lot of illegal fireworks probably came into Germany between September and November,” the spokesman said.

The main danger is that poorly-made fuses ignite the flashpowder without the normal delay. The boy who injured his hand had been using one of these illegal fireworks from Poland. “I’d barely lit it when the thing exploded,” he told the Berliner Kurier newspaper.

This naturally has doctors worried.

“Most of the injuries we see are from fireworks going off while they’re still being held, especially with children,” said Hartmut Siebert, general secretary of the Association of Trauma Surgeons. “They are very complex hand injuries with deep burns and lacerations and it also often involves burns to the face.”

The association would like to see stricter regulation, with a ban on hand-held fireworks and tougher penalties for the sale or supply of fireworks to children.

A moral dimension has also emerged, with a fight this week between church groups and a charity. The “Brott statt Boeller” campaign (“Bread not fireworks”), run by the youth wings of the Catholic and Protestant churches, aims to encourage people to donate their fireworks budget to charity.

“Some young people were angry about all the money wasted each Silvester on making light in the sky,” said Ruth Huber, of the Federation of German Catholic Youth in Munich. “So they started the campaign to get people thinking about the world’s poor.”

But this week, the Saarland-based charity “3rd World Action” criticized the campaign, with the charity’s leader Roland Roeder branding the campaign “asceticism for show,” and saying that it was counterproductive to make people feel bad about having fun.

He’s not the first to complain. Huber said the campaigners have received letters accusing them of being killjoys and even, in one case, claiming they were costing much-needed jobs in Asia, where most fireworks are made.

In response, Huber said: “You can decide for yourself. We don’t say 'It's bad.' We just say, ‘Think about it.’ I actually like fireworks and I buy them every year but I give the same amount to the campaign.”

In any case, none of this seems likely to dent Germans’ love of fireworks.

Social worker Jan Marten, who was shopping at Mainusch’s store with his 12-year-old daughter Michelle and friend Andre Buhse, racked up $137 on two large bags of fireworks.

“I teach my children to do it safely,” he said. “I was in the army for 15 years, so this just seems like a toy. My wife mostly watches from the window.

“Yes, it’s a lot of money, but it’s my money that I’ve worked for, and I want to have fun with my family.”




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Germany,fireworks,year,churches
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2009-14-31
Thursday, 31 Dec 2009 11:14 AM
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