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Balloon cylinder blasts: Lax monitoring behind deaths?

  • Published at 12:24 am November 5th, 2019
Rupnagar Gas Cylinder Blast
File photo: A critically injured child from a gas cylinder blast arrives at Dhaka Medical College Hospital to receive treatment on Thursday, October 31, 2019 Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

The October 30 accident that took place around 3:30pm near a slum at the Rupnagar area of Mirpur also injured several people, mostly children, many of whom are still critical

Timely measures and strict monitoring could have prevented the deaths of seven children who were killed in the October 30 blast of a gas cylinder – used for inflating balloons – in Mirpur of Dhaka, said experts.

Dubbing such incidents as commonplace, experts said that a bolder role from local administrations, police, and community authorities could have prevented the repetition of such blasts.

The October 30 accident that took place around 3:30pm near a slum at the Rupnagar area of Mirpur also injured several people, mostly children, many of whom are still critical.

This happens to be the third balloon cylinder accident this year. The balloon seller, Abu Sayeed, who sustained severe injuries was new to the business and had just started his business near the slum on Road No 11, near Monipur School and College, two weeks before the blast.

A 50-year-old balloon vendor was killed and several others injured in a similar blast in Dhaka's Mirpur area on January 25 – the first such accident of 2019.

The cylinder blast at Dhaka Education Board Laboratory School and College premises took place during class hours, when the vendor was pumping balloons for an annual sports competition.

On March, 21, another balloon seller died from injuries sustained from a blast at an annual fair in Lalmonirhat’s Kaliganj upazila.

Alarmingly, all three incidents took place in packed venues during rush hours, claiming nine lives altogether.

‘Cashing in on loophole’

Disaster management expert Gowher Naim Wara said such blasts are nothing new, but the authorities seem to have turned a blind eye until the latest accident.

“Since there are no specific authorities to monitor the use of cylinders by balloon vendors, they are cashing in on the loophole,” he said.

“Maybe local administration, community leaders and market authorities can step forward to stop the illegal and life-threatening businesses,” he added.

Talking about the role of the police in this regard, he said the law enforcement agency can do a lot to help stop such blasts by taking action against the illegal use of gas cylinders to produce hydrogen, instead of helium, to inflate balloons.

“Of course, no one can operate a business from makeshift establishments without bribing police. The same formula applies for balloon sellers,” he said, highlighting the negligence of the police in this case.

No higher-up from the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) was available for a comment over the issue.

Gowher suggested that government open helium gas pumping stations or booths for balloon vendors to avoid similar untoward incidents.

“The use of helium gas will definitely be more expensive for both balloon vendors and customers. But considering the growing demand of balloons on different occasions, the option has to be taken into account,” he concluded.

Prof Ijaz Hossain, of the chemical engineering department at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology’s (Buet) said the lack of monitoring is causing the cylinder blasts on a regular basis.

The expert also expressed concern on the use of cylinders, mostly obsolete, by balloon vendors and said: “Generating highly inflammatory hydrogen in the risky cylinders is always dangerous. Only specialized cylinders are safe for producing hydrogen.”

Vendors untraceable

Earlier, Department of Explosives’ Chief Inspector Md Samsul Alam in his reaction over the Rupnagar blast said balloon sellers usually modify abandoned CNG, LPG, or other types of cylinders and use them illegally.

“We do not have any way to track them as they are mobile,” he said, adding: “They turn these cylinders into improvised gas producing reactors by cutting off the regulators. Then they mix caustic soda, powdered aluminum and water inside the cylinders to produce hydrogen gas on the go,” he said.

“As long as there are customers, the hawkers use up the gas to blow balloons. But when they do not [use up the gas], the chemical reaction inside the cylinder continues to produce hydrogen gas, which in turn generates immense pressure and increases temperature inside, posing the risk of explosion,” Samsul said.

Samsul also held police responsible for failing to prevent such fatal incidents and said: “We have notified the police about the illegal use of such cylinders many times. But they are yet to take proper action.”

Dhaka Tribune tried to get in touch with those producing hydrogen for inflating balloons, but none could be reached.

According to sources, a handful of balloon vendors are running the risky business in Dhaka, mainly in Shahbagh, Rayer Bazar, Shyamoli, Old Dhaka and Badda areas.

But since October 30 afternoon, not a single balloon seller could be traced despite repeated attempts.

Requesting anonymity, a Mohammadpur-based event manager, who collects balloons from such mobile vendors, said they have gone into hiding after the Rupnagar tragedy.

The reporter also visited the shop of balloon seller, Fajar Ali, at Shahbagh, but it was locked. Even the billboard was removed and cell number was found switched off.

Previous casualties 

On February 14, 2018, a married couple was killed in a gas cylinder explosion at a fair in Moheshkhali of Cox’s Bazar. They were regular balloon vendors at the annual event.

Five people including a balloon vendor and his two sons were critically injured in a blast at a fair in Madaripur’s Kalkini upazila on November 11, 2015. The balloon seller later succumbed to his injuries.

In Chittagong’s Boalkhali upazila, a person died and four people, including three children, were injured in a similar explosion on Victory Day in 2015.

There are also numerous media reports on casualties from such blasts from parts of the country in recent years.

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