Ask a Salvadoran what Christmas sounds like and rather than mentioning jingle bells they may instead whistle in imitation of the sound of fireworks. Fireworks are a popular holiday tradition in the small Central American country of El Salvador; this time of year the streets of Salvadoran neighborhoods are littered with the paper remnants of firecrackers and the scent of gunpowder hangs in the air. However, each year this celebratory custom meant to bring smiles and laughter, brings injury and sometimes death.
El Salvador's Ministry of Health reported this week that so far this holiday season they had recorded 44 people burned in relation to handling fireworks with 13 of those injuries being in the span of only one week. These numbers mark a new record for firework-related injuries with many of the victims being children as young as 3 years old according to Hugo Salgado, the director of Benjamin Bloom Children's Hospital in San Salvador. According to the Ministry of Health, these statistics are 91 percent higher than last year during the same period and unfortunately, there is a likelihood of more to come with the bulk of fireworks being set off happening during the Christmas Eve "Noche Buena" celebration on December 24th.
Other statistics from the report show that most injuries occur in urban areas and out of the 14 departments in the country, the injuries have occurred in every department except for the department of Cabañas. The types of fireworks causing the most injuries include those known locally as morteros, silbadores, and buscaniguas.
Billboards, TV commercials, community outreach events and social media have all been utilized to get the message out. El Salvador's Ministry of Health (@minsalud ) recently tweeted "You can report irresponsible use of fireworks by calling 911" along with the hashtag
#Nomasniñosquemados (No more children burned.) The tweet also mentions @BomberosES, the official Twitter account of El Salvador's firefighters. Tweets from @BomberosES include one yesterday which gives a higher statistic from the one put out earlier by the Ministry of Health, stating, "A 5 días de noche buena, ya van 49 lesionados por mal uso de la pólvora," ("Five days until Christmas Eve and already 49 injured for the misuse of fireworks.")
Even the Catholic Church has weighed in, with Archbishop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar Alas, agreeing that fireworks should be banned. "I don't think they [fireworks] are appropriate toys for children," Archbishop Escobar Alas said at a recent press conference, "and they contribute nothing to the culture of peace that we want to build."
Despite these various campaigns to discourage the use of fireworks and to educate the public on the serious injuries that can occur when not handled properly, temporary stalls selling the colorful products line the streets and see no shortage of customers. Nevertheless, the Health Department continues what seems to be a losing battle.
"I'm radical," said Health Minister Maria Isabel Rodríguez to El Salvador's El Diario de Hoy, "for me the fireworks should be banned."
Tracy López is a bilingual writer living outside the Washington DC metro area. She is the founder of Latinaish.com.