Children as young as eight years old are being used to smuggle banned pyrotechnic devices into Premier League soccer grounds, according to research published on Tuesday.
A survey of 1,635 supporters commissioned by the Premier League found that a third of fans had been directly affected by flares and that 86 percent felt concerned for their safety.
There has been a rise in incidents involving pyrotechnics at Premier League matches in recent seasons, with an assistant referee hit by a smoke bomb thrown from the stands during a game at Aston Villa in October.
The research also revealed that closed-circuit TV footage at one Premier League ground showed a young boy handing out fireworks to adults from a rucksack.
The Premier League, the Football League and the Football Association are launching a campaign to remind supporters that it is illegal to bring such items to matches.
“A disturbing element of increased pyrotechnics has been the involvement of children,” the Premier League said in a statement.
“It is not uncommon for ‘mules’ to bring the pyrotechnics into a ground on behalf of others, and in one incident at a Premier League match last season a child aged around eight was observed aiding those involved in pyrotechnic use,” it added. “The child came into the ground with pyrotechnics in his rucksack and was then seen passing them to members of an adult group who let them off inside the ground.”
The use of pyrotechnics in English soccer has risen sharply in the past three years, with eight incidents reported in 2010-2011, 72 in 2011-2012, 172 in the previous season and 96 incidents recorded to date this season.
Britain’s Minister of Policing Damian Green warned: “Football fans might see images of football grounds in other parts of Europe full of smoke and light caused by pyrotechnic devices and think that they create a good atmosphere — but they do not.”
“Flares are very dangerous and can cause severe injuries. We are very lucky that no one has been seriously injured or killed by a flare here for a long time,” he added.
Nine people have been injured by fireworks thrown at grounds in England in the past 18 months, while fans from clubs including Manchester United and Chelsea have been issued soccer banning orders this year for using or possessing smoke bombs.
World governing body FIFA is also investigating the use of flares during a World Cup qualifying match between England and Poland at Wembley Stadium in October.
In February, a 14-year-old Bolivian boy was killed by a flare during a Copa Libertadores match in Bolivia.
“It’s the biggest concern we’ve got among fans at the moment,” Cathy Long, head of supporter services at the Premier League, told the BBC.
“There have been incidents across the world where people have had bad injuries or died. We’ve been lucky that our leagues haven’t had such major issues yet, but we want to stop that from happening,” Long added.