Powerful illegal explosive devices have severely injured children in Philadelphia in recent incidents, prompting concern and a warning from the Police Department.

Police say there’s been “a marked increase in the use of illegal explosive devices” this summer, leading to “serious, life-threatening injuries.” Capt. Sekou Kinebrew said police recovery of M-series explosives is up at least 50 percent from last year, while post-blast investigations have doubled during the same time period. He didn’t provide specific numbers.

While there have been recent changes to fireworks laws in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, rules surrounding the extremely dangerous devices have stayed the same — you can’t use them. Here’s what to know.

Recent incidents

Two children were recently hurt after using illegal explosives. A 12-year-old boy in Summerdale lost a finger and severely injured the palm and knuckles of his other hand after an illegal firework he was holding exploded this week, police said.

A preliminary investigation by the Bomb Squad showed that the device had the power of a quarter- or half-stick of dynamite.

The incident came days after a 9-year-old girl suffered “life-altering” injuries after an “improvised explosive device" exploded in her hands in Kensington, police said. She sustained cuts and burns to her chest, face, torso, eyes, and both hands.

Authorities said the girl’s father illegally bought two devices from a man on the street.

Philadelphia police said it hasn’t been determined if the devices in the two cases came from the same source, but noted that similar devices are sometimes made at home with parts that can be purchased legally, including cardboard and cotton. Both incidents remain under investigation.

"Unfortunately, as is the case with other forms of contraband (e.g., narcotics, certain firearms, etc.), the fact that these types of fireworks are illegal to distribute does not deter unscrupulous individuals from attempting to do so," the department said in a statement.

Charlene Hennessy, a spokesperson with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), said the agency was assisting with the two investigations, but could not comment further.

“We remain committed to keeping the community safe and urge the public if they see these devices on the street or see them being sold to call 911," she said.

What you can’t use: M-type devices are illegal

M-type devices, like M-80s, M-100s, M-250s, and M-1000s, aren’t the same as fireworks, and are illegal. The police and ATF also note:

  • The devices aren’t legally made, sold, regulated, or imported throughout the country.
  • M-series devices are classified as “Illegal Explosive Devices” by ATF, the Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
  • Having an M-series explosive device is a felony in Pennsylvania.
  • While people with a license can buy the chemicals used in M-series explosives, they can’t actually manufacture the devices.
  • These devices aren’t “fireworks,” and any legitimate fireworks have much less explosive material in them and adhere to restrictions for pyrotechnic amounts set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates fireworks manufacturing and importation.

The ATF says explosives can only be manufactured, stored, or sold by those with a license or permit. They can’t be used in the same way as Roman candles, bottle rockets, and other consumer fireworks, because they exceed regulators’ explosive weight limits.

Philadelphia Police outline types of M-series devices.
Philadelphia Police Department / Courtesy
Philadelphia Police outline types of M-series devices.

Additionally, display fireworks — the ones you see at events like Wawa Welcome America — are only to be used by professionals with a permit, according to Pennsylvania state police.

Rules for legal fireworks use

In 2017, Pennsylvania revamped its fireworks laws, allowing residents to purchase “consumer fireworks” like Roman candles, bottle rockets, missile-type rockets, firecrackers, and mortars. The fireworks also became legal to use in Philadelphia after Mayor Jim Kenney signed the city’s new fire code into law before the Fourth of July holiday.

But there are many rules to follow. Displays, for example, can’t be used within 150 feet of an “occupied structure” or lit without the property owner’s permission. So good luck trying to use them in a city as densely populated as Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, a sidelined bill in Harrisburg would limit what kinds of fireworks can be sold at roadside tents, while City Council recently passed a bill prohibiting the sale of fireworks by sidewalk vendors.