Fireworks transported through Malta’s streets could be ignited accidentally by an electromagnetic signal from electricity cables in the streets or even mobile phones, The Sunday Times has learnt.

The 2011 fireworks commission said the practice was an accident waiting to happen

The fireworks trade in Malta is increasingly turning away from the traditional method of lighting petards with fuses (usually a piece of string coated with a flammable material, which is lit with a match or lighter) in favour of electronic initiators or electric matches.

These are susceptible to being triggered by accidental impact or through electromagnetic interference coming from high voltage cables, strong radio transmitters and even mobile phones.

The technology is comparable to that used in conventional explosives by the military or quarrying companies.

But while in these cases safety practice dictates that the initiator should only be attached immediately before detonation, local fireworks enthusiasts often introduce these triggers while building petards or before leaving the factory with them.

“They are practically building their fireworks around the igniters. This means the minute this device is placed inside the petard, the explosive is armed and susceptible to accidental triggering... it means that a fault in the device or an electromagnetic field could potentially trigger a blast,” an explosives expert with intimate knowledge of the industry told The Sunday Times.

The practice raises the spectre of an explosion during transportation, particularly in urban areas, where electromagnetic fields are more likely.

Fireworks destined for Gozo from Malta or to be let off from barges in Grand Harbour or the Sliema/St Julian’s area are usually transported in large quantities, often exceeding one ton, in the midst of dense urban areas.

The issue had been flagged in a report by the Vella Commission, which in 2011 carried out a comprehensive review of fireworks accidents of the past 30 years and made a series of recommendations, which have not been implemented to date.

The document reported anecdotal evidence about the practice of arming fireworks early and recommended it should stop immediately, describing it as “an accident waiting to happen”.

Sources have confirmed to The Sunday Times that the practice is widespread and growing, particularly since elaborate fireworks displays, those synchronised to music and even those launched from barges could not realistically happen without the remote control offered by the igniters.

The transition to these igniters also happens to be a safer option for enthusiasts, who, with traditional fuses, have to light up petards by hand and then quite literally run away before the petard launches.

Godfrey Farrugia, a pyro-technician, confirmed the practice to arm the petards before they leave the factory.

However, he said that placing the triggers at the factory was actually safer than carrying out the “laborious, mind-boggling” process onsite, often in the middle of a field.

He also said that enthusiasts disabled initiators by unplugging the supply wires from the batteries and tying them together, a process called shunting.

However, the Vella report pointed out that scientific literature is not conclusive on whether this procedure is enough to avoid the risk of accidental triggering.

Moreover, explosives experts insist the practice does not eliminate the risk, particularly if the shunting is not done properly, in the case of malfunction or if the igniters are of inferior quality. On this point, Dr Farrugia admitted there is currently nothing regulating the quality of igniters (which can be bought by anybody over the internet) being used enthusiasts.

“I believe there needs to be a standardisation of igniters. Only good quality igniters should be on the market. If there is regulation, nobody will be able to buy online.”

The chairman of the 2011 commission, Prof. Alfred Vella, said the issue of igniters is one of the least talked about in the industry, pointing out there is hardly any regulation on the transportation of fireworks.

“It’s an issue which is beyond my expertise in chemistry. But the military, the world over, absolutely does not accept this practice.

“So if that is the military practice, am I going to be a cowboy and ignore it?” Prof. Vella said.

He said the commission’s own probing in this area often elicited a strong reaction, and enthusiasts described such a concern as an overreaction.

“They often insist there has never been a problem and it’s true. One of the problems is that there is no data on this, particularly locally.

“There hasn’t been a problem so far but do we want to wait for a problem to happen and then say, what have we done?”

In Qala, concerns have been raised by deputy mayor Paul Buttigieg, who complained that the bulk of fireworks destined for Gozo passed through his village after landing in Ħondoq ir-Rummien.

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