Experts behind a 2011 report on the fireworks industry have called for an urgent ban on dangerous chemical mixtures that are still used by local pyrotechnics enthusiasts despite being banned abroad.
The report, commissioned in the wake of the September 2010 tragedy at the Farrugia Brothers Factory in Għarb that killed six people, found that Maltese enthusiasts used highly volatile chemical mixtures prohibited in many other countries, and that manufacturers were often rash when making fireworks.
Chillingly, the report predicted Malta would “experience at least one large-scale fatal fireworks accident next year or in 2013” unless regulations were amended and certain mixtures banned.
A year later, the Qalb ta’ Gesù factory blew up on Sunday, killing four men just 500 metres away from the Farrugia Brothers site, which had triggered the inquiry.
Speaking to The Times yesterday, Prof. Alfred Vella, chairman of the board of inquiry, said banning specific chemical mixtures would be a relatively easy measure that could be taken immediately.
The overriding concern is with mixtures combining potassium chlorate (putassa) and metals. Potassium perchlorate (perkolat) could be used instead but the report recommended limiting the use of this chemical too.
“When we made our recommendations we had given a lead time of two years because there was an issue since some enthusiasts were not adept in the use of potassium perchlorate. It was a compromise accepted by the commission in the spirit of finding a consensual solution.
“But had we implemented this back then, the transition would be round the corner.”
Moreover, he argued, the ban would be relatively easy to implement.
“It would entail putting in place a ban and then verifying through checks that it is being observed,” Prof. Vella said.
The call was echoed by fellow board member Prof. Victor Axiaq, who heads the Church’s Environment Commission – a vociferous body which has repeatedly called for better regulation.
“We need to implement the recommendations immediately as we are literally playing with fire here,” Prof. Axiaq said.
The urgency in the calls echo the tone adopted by the commission in its report.
However, former Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici had said the report would first be opened for public consultation before a stakeholder conference would establish which measures to adopt.
The minister resigned in May after losing a vote of confidence in Parliament and the responsibility for fireworks went to the Prime Minister. But the recommendations remain just that a year after they were made.
“Unfortunately, with the way things developed, politicians appear to have been too distracted by recent developments. Unless the problem is addressed, however, this is likely to keep happening,” Prof. Vella complained yesterday.
Contacted yesterday, Dr Mifsud Bonnici regretted that the report’s implementation had been scuttled by the political developments concerning him but he pointed out that several legal amendments had been made and measures taken in the past year.
Still, he supported the call for urgency, saying that the measures on which there were discussions and agreement should be implemented without delay.
He also emphasised, however, as he had done when he was a minister, the need to bring on board the enthusiasts themselves.
Aside from banning dangerous chemicals, the report also recommended setting up a research centre where chemical mixtures could undergo rigorous scientific testing before being allowed in firework manufacture.
Prof. Axiaq emphasised this point, stressing that unless the industry took to professionalising its practices there would be no substantial change.
In the wake of Sunday’s tragedy, fireworks enthusiasts have called for more factories to be built to spread the load of production.
The concentration of products in fewer factories has been a growing concern following a series of accidents in the past years that destroyed major factories, such as the one used by Mosta for its feast.
The 2011 report had supported this sort of call in the context of a comprehensive regulatory framework, which, so far does not exist.
The Commission had analysed 99 accidents between 1980 and 2010. Statistics revealed firework accidents increased in frequency over the past 30 years, with deaths and injuries peaking in 2005.
Moreover, large-scale accidents tended to be followed by a one- or two-year lull, which the report attributed to heightened caution and attention in the manufacturing process following big accidents.
The study had also looked into the statistical prevalence of accidents in Malta. A UK study of firework accidents between 1950 and 1977 found factories had an accident rate of 0.0001 per year.
If the same rate was translated locally, considering the size differences, the islands should have one accident every 250 years. Instead, in the past three decades fireworks caused an average 2.3 accidents per year.