Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on September 1, 2015.

Powder Keg
A deadly concert incident puts a new twist on combustible dust explosions

WORLDWIDE, DUST EXPLOSIONS have been considered an industrial problem, a product of large-scale processes that can produce devastating explosions and fires.

That perception was altered in June, when a cloud of colored cornstarch dust exploded at a packed concert in New Taipei, Taiwan, sending a giant fireball through the crowd and burning hundreds of people. As this issue of NFPA Journal went to press, 11 people had died, 269 remained hospitalized, and 117 were in intensive care units, some with burns covering 90 percent of their bodies. The city’s mayor, Eric Chu, called it the “worst incident of mass injury (ever) in New Taipei.”

Cornstarch is part of a long list of combustible substances capable of producing dust explosions. Any fine particle—from aluminum to wood to sugar—at the right concentration and under the right conditions can explode when a viable ignition source is introduced, said Guy Colonna, NFPA’s division manager of Industrial and Chemical Engineering. In the United States alone, there were 50 combustible dust accidents between 2008 and 2012, resulting in 29 fatalities and 161 injuries, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB). All were in industrial settings—the CSB does not keep statistics on non-industrial dust incidents. Dust explosions at celebrations and other public gatherings have been nearly nonexistent before the Taiwan disaster, Colonna said.

In Taiwan, about 1,000 concert-goers danced inside a drained swimming pool at a water park, part of an event called “Color Play Asia.” Organizers shot plumes of colored cornstarch into the air, filling the air with particulate and coating revelers’ clothes and skin with the powder. An unknown heat source, possibly a cigarette, ignited the fine particles and produced a massive fireball, officials said.

Similar events, including “color runs”—fun-runs where participants have colored powder thrown on them—are growing in popularity around the world. The events are inspired by the ancient Hindu religious festival known as Holi, where revelers throw colored powders into the air and at other participants.

NFPA has several codes and standards aimed at preventing industrial dust explosions, but nothing specifically addressing celebrations or public gatherings, Colonna said. However, the NFPA dust documents contain a wealth of technical information on how dust explosions occur that could be applied to preventing future disasters, no matter the context, he said. In light of the Taiwan explosion, NFPA may assemble an information packet for enforcers and fire officials.

“From an advocacy standpoint, it would make sense to put down on paper what we know technically, as well as anecdotes from past incidents,” Colonna said. “The purpose would be to get the information into the hands of the right people, especially in places where they are already hosting or planning to host one of these events. We may be able to head off any dangerous situations that might creep in.”

JESSE ROMAN is staff writer for NFPA Journal.