MPR News reporter Annie Baxter tells the story of how she was injured in a seemingly light-hearted Independence Day activity that has nothing to do with fireworks.
An unexpected danger
Over the past year, I've spent a lot of time in the eye doctor's office.
Last Fourth of July, while I was out on a boat, something came hurtling through the air and hit me in the eyes, just as I was standing up. I lost my sight at first and had to go to the emergency room. The iris was torn in each eye and was filling with blood.
After more than a dozen trips to the eye doctor, my vision is fine now. But I still need check-ups. It's always a little embarrassing telling the technicians why I'm there.
"Water balloons, you said?" asks Pat Morris, the ophthalmic assistant.
No, I explain. I got hit in the eye with one water balloon. Both eyes, in fact.
That's right, a little water balloon. Perhaps you've heard of the tradition on Minnesota lakes, where boats parade around?
A new tradition has risen up alongside it, where the boaters engage in all-out water balloon warfare. Some people even use slingshots and catapults.
Still, serious injury from a water balloon might seem weird. But it turns out I was hardly the first.
"These are capable of doing very significant injuries," said Dr. John Bullock, an ophthalmologist who conducts public health research at Wright State University School of Medicine.
Back in the '90s, Bullock co-authored a study looking at the dangers of water balloons -- specifically, those that are launched by a slingshot or catapult. He analyzed case studies of water balloon-related eye injuries, and they were intense.
"... including blinding people, causing detached retinas, causing fractures of the eye socket, of the bones around the eye," said Bullock. "So it's very substantial injuries."
How could a floppy little balloon do such damage? To find out, Bullock set up an experiment using water balloons and a type of catapult that some people use on the Fourth of July, which resembles person-sized slingshot. Bullock aimed to measure the kinetic energy of the launched balloons.
"I bought a watermelon and I put it on a table in my backyard and then aimed this water balloon via this launcher, and released it, and the water balloon went sailing towards the watermelon, and the watermelon just literally disintegrated," said Bullock.
In field trials, those launched balloons reached velocities up to 92 miles per hour. Bullock's work helped push manufacturers of water balloon slingshots to put warning labels on their products about potential injuries.
But Bullock said even hand-thrown balloons, can cause serious harm.
It's gotten so bad in Morrison County in central Minnesota, that the area banned water balloon fights during boat parades this Fourth of July.
Sheriff Michel Wetzel said violators will get a citation for littering and might pay a few hundred dollars in fines.
"You have your fun, you squirt each other with water, we don't care, but you can't be chucking these things at each other," Wetzel said.
Wetzel said the balloons pollute lakes, harm wildlife, and he's had several reports of property damage and injuries.
But water balloon fights aren't limited to fights on Minnesota Lakes, and neither are the injuries.
Dr. Deborah Alcorn, chief of Pediatric Ophthalmology at Stanford University and a clinical correspondent with the American Academy of Ophthalmology, said she sees as many as a half dozen water balloon-related injuries every year.
"You see it right when school's out, and you see it again right before school starts," Alcorn said.
Alcorn advises wearing appropriate eye covering if you're going to have a water balloon fight.
Now you might be thinking, "leave it to public radio to point all this out and take the fun but of a simple Fourth of July tradition." After all, those water balloon fights are a rollicking good time.
I got an invitation to another boat parade and water balloon fight this year, but I have to say, after all those doctor visits and medical bills, I think I'll sit this one out.