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‘Change fireworks rules now or face a tragedy’

High fireworks accident rate

Malta will experience at least one large-scale fatal fireworks accident next year or in 2013 unless firework regulations are amended and certain chemical mixtures are banned, an independent inquiry has warned.

But despite the report’s sense of urgency, Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici yesterday said the report would first be opened for public consultation before a stakeholder conference would establish which measures to adopt.

The inquiry, headed by Professor Alfred Vella, has found that local firework factories use highly volatile chemical mixtures banned in many other countries, and that manufacturers are often hurried and inattentive when making fireworks.

“Not only is there no solid scientific knowledge of what is being mixed or any testing of these mixtures’ sensitivity but it appears that certain mixtures, so sensitive they have been banned in other European countries, are still being used in Malta,” the report states.

It calls for all chemical mixtures to undergo rigorous scientific testing before they can be used in firework manufacture and suggests establishing a specialised testing centre for this purpose.

Mixtures combining potassium chlorate [putassa] and metals should be banned by law within the next two years and limits placed on the amount of potassium perchlorate [perkolat] a factory can use, the inquiry insists.

Potassium chlorate is cheaper but more volatile than its cousin, potassium perchlorate. Although manufacturers are limited in the amount of potassium chlorate they can use, it remains legal.

Additionally, no such quantity restrictions exist on the use of potassium perchlorate, encouraging sloppy manufacturing habits. The recommendations also call for firework production to be spread across more factories to lessen workloads and time pressures, and for factory licensees to be given more power to control who and how fireworks are manufactured. Although some of the chemical mixtures used were found to be extremely dangerous, the report found that the actual chemicals themselves were of good enough quality and did not contain any dangerous impurities.

The report nevertheless pointed out that no Maltese law regulated the quality of chemicals used in fireworks manufacture, and called for this to change.

It proposes a series of physical and procedural changes aimed at making manufacture and transportation safer, among them installing anti-static earthing plates in every factory and banning the attaching of electric igniters – used for pyromusical displays – within firework factories.

Commissioned in September 2010 following a spate of tragic firework accidents, the report analyses 99 such accidents between 1980 and 2010.

Statistics reveal how firework accidents have increased in frequency and become more fatal over the past 30 years, with deaths and injuries peaking in 2005.

Large-scale accidents tended to be followed by a one- or two-year lull, which the report attributes to heightened caution and attention in the manufacturing process in the years following large accidents.

But this cautious phase tends to wear off after a couple of years at most – a trend which explained the lack of large-scale explosions this past summer, Prof. Vella said.

“Statistics predicted a relatively safe firework season this year, following last year’s tragedies. Unfortunately, they also predict repeat tragedies either next year, or the year after that,” he said.

He compared Maltese firework manufacturers to untrained musicians who could play elaborate symphonies but could only play by ear, without reading sheet music.

“Maltese pyrotechnicians are fantastic at what they do, but many lack the scientific know-how necessary when dealing with volatile chemical compositions.”

The result, said Prof. Vella, was a firework accident rate far higher than that in other European countries.

A UK study of firework accidents between 1950 and 1977 found that factories there had an accident rate of 0.0001 per year.

“If you transpose that accident prevalence rate to the Maltese context, we should experience one accident every 250 years,” Prof. Vella said.

Instead, over the past 30 years fireworks have caused an average of 2.3 accidents every year.

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