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Public safety committee recommends a ban on Cedar Rapids fireworks

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Another city in Eastern Iowa is one step closer to banning fireworks.

The Cedar Rapids Public Safety and Youth Services Committee is meeting with members of the city council to recommend the ban of fireworks in the city, and to restrict where they can be sold to industrial-zoned areas only.

The committee went over data compiled about the impact fireworks had on the city during the time they were made legal from June 1 to July 8.  During those dates, firefighters fought two fires caused by fireworks. The first on June 4, when a garage caught fire after kids were lighting off fireworks, causing an estimated $35,000 of damages. The second was on June 19, when fireworks also caused a fire in a garage before it spread to the home, causing $140,000 of damage.

A third fire occurred on May 4, before fireworks were made legal, causing $1,500 damages after fireworks that were detonated near a garage caused damage to its siding.

"My recommendation, strong recommendation, is we ban the use of fireworks in the city," Cedar Rapids Fire Chief, Mark English, said.

In all, fire-related calls were made for two dumpster fires, fireworks that were thrown at a house, and fireworks that were lit off in a cemetery.

Between the cities' two hospitals, UnityPoint Health-St. Luke's Hospital and Mercy Medical Center, 21 people were treated for firework-related injuries this year. 

"I won't get into details, but it was a life changing event for him," English said about a 14-year-old boy who suffered serious burns.

The committee also discussed the impact of fireworks on pollution in soil and in the air.

Cedar Rapids Utilities Director, Steve Hershner, said two soil samples taken on July 5 showed detectable results for perchlorate at 0.53 mg/kg and 6.31 mg/kg. One sample location between two wells has been sampled yearly since 2013, and results were either no detection or up to 0.54 mg/kg. The location that hit 6.31 mg/kg was heavily-used for public fireworks.

"Water moves through that soil profile and can pick up that chemical, perchlorate, that we talked about today, and can put that in an area that can be collected in our well, brought into our water supply," Hershner said.

If ingested, he said it can affect a person's thyroid and hormones.

The city also saw a number of air-quality issues caused by fireworks. On the weekend surrounding the Fourth of July, there were 17 hours of unhealthy air quality, and several others were down to moderate.

"All of that smoke contains particles of very small size that can get deep into your lungs and can cause health effects for people that have respiratory illness,"  Hershner said.

The recommendation to ban fireworks was highly supported by Cedar Rapids residents who were in attendance.

"It's hard on people to have all that noise. It's hard on animals. The pollution that Steve Hershner mentioned is very concerning because a lot of people do have respiratory issues, and that stuff hanging in the air is just nasty. I had to keep my house closed up a lot of the time," Jean Kirby said.

Diagrams were also presented on the neighborhood impact fireworks can have, such as debris that falls down from fireworks. They claim a resident that discharges a firework with a 70-feet clearance can impact at least five adjoining properties, while one with a 140-feet clearance can impact nine neighbors.

"It's all flammable, and I would see all of these sparkles going off in the air above my neighbors house going, 'hmm, wonder where that's going to land," Kirby said.

Cedar Rapids police are also seeing a growing problem. Between June 1 and July 8 of 2016, there were 166 calls for service for an officer was dispatched. That same period in 2017, of which fireworks were legal, they had 372 calls for service. Police said there were an additional 576 computer aided dispatch messages to sent to officers regarding firework problems.

In total, dispatchers answered over 500 phone calls from people about fireworks during legal hours in that time but an officer was not dispatched unless there was a safety concern.

Police said fireworks have also caused a lot of confusion about shootings. There were 33 incidents where police were dispatched after a shots fired report that turned out to be fireworks. During two actual shootings, people told police they did not think to call 911 because they thought it was fireworks.

Council members agreed with the committee on the ban. Councilman Scott Overland said the quick-moving state legislation led the council to make a poor decision, and said fireworks don't belong in a city. The recommendation of the ban will be taken to the city council for a vote on an ordinance change.

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