In wake of Taiwan tragedy, Hong Kong must review rules on 'colour parties'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 June, 2015, 1:45am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 June, 2015, 3:05am

A fireball in a crowded public entertainment venue does not bear thinking about. Our thoughts are with the almost 500 revellers hurt in a dust explosion at a "colour party" in New Taipei City on Saturday night, and our prayers for recovery are with the 200 fighting serious injury. Sadly, one person, a 20-year-old woman, died from her injuries yesterday.

Explosions of combustible dust that can ignite when mixed with air, such as flour or grain and many metals, are a known hazard in the right conditions when the dust has gathered in the environment. For example, less than 12 months ago, scores of factory workers in Jiangsu died when a flame ignited metal dust suspended in the air.

What sets Saturday's blast apart is that, apparently, flammable dust was unwittingly introduced to the venue to enhance the revelry. Cheering broke out when a large volume of green and yellow coloured corn starch was sprayed on dancers. But the joy turned to terror and panic as the powder ignited and flames engulfed the partygoers.

"Colour" events have become popular among young people, apparently without serious incident anywhere that might have rung warning bells. A "Life in Colour" music party is planned in Hong Kong on July 25 and a "Colour Run" for December 6, both at Asia-World Expo. Organisers of the music party said they would use paint colours that are not flammable. The Fire Services Department says it will examine samples before consenting to the issuing of a licence.

Combustible dust explosions not only need fuel and oxygen, but dispersal of dust in the right concentration. It seems the sprayed powder somehow satisfied the last condition. Dr Fung Ying-sing of the University of Hong Kong said corn starch had high-energy content. When sprayed in concentrated particulate form it would easily react with oxygen and explode.

Hong Kong may yet follow the Taiwanese authorities and effectively ban the use of coloured powder spray. Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man said yesterday his department would consider advice from a number of departments before issuing event licences.

The Fire Services Department has in the past focused on physical safety issues like clear fire-escape routes. There is also a need to make clear rules about the use of materials intended to enhance an event but which, in a fateful combination of circumstances, can turn a party into tragedy.