Hydrogen-inflated party balloons: ‘bombs’ ticking in crowds in Bangladesh

After a series of cylinder blasts, Bangladesh has recently witnessed the explosions of balloons at a police programme

Golam Mortujabdnews24.com
Published : 27 Sept 2022, 07:21 PM
Updated : 27 Sept 2022, 07:21 PM

Party balloons are a must to add more joy to celebrations around the world, but a recent accident related to the apparently harmless object after several deadly cylinder blasts in the past few years in Bangladesh has turned the spotlight on the dangers around the inflatables.

The floating toy balloons come in different sizes, shapes and colours, especially in the form of cartoon characters adored by children. In Bangladesh, they can be found anywhere, from public places to bus-stand to festivals.

Balloon cylinder blasts have caused deaths, including of children, in recent years. But the apparently safe balloons were at the centre of the latest accident, in which stand-up comedian and actor Abu Hena Rony and some other people were injured during a police festival in Gazipur.

The balloon seller, who was trying to show that his balloons float by lighting up one of them, ultimately caused a blast. He was sent to jail. But no steps were taken to stop the recurrence of such an accident.

After seven children were killed in a cylinder blast in Dhaka’s Rupnagar in 2019, the Department of Explosives said it was seeking a ban on the use of hydrogen to inflate balloons, but there has been no progress in stopping vendors from using flammable gas as the department lacks manpower.

‘TOYING WITH BOMBS’

In most countries, helium gas is used for party balloons. Helium balloons never cause fire and rarely explode.

Helium is all over the universe. It is the second-most abundant element. But on Earth, it is much less common.

It cannot be artificially produced and must be extracted from natural gas wells. Thus, it is very expensive.

In Bangladesh, vendors use flammable hydrogen because helium is also hard to buy and its use will make balloons very expensive and ultimately send customers away.

They themselves create the hydrogen gas in the cylinders by using chemicals. The uncontrolled method is highly dangerous, according to experts.

“Hydrogen is highly flammable. That’s why we handle it in an extremely controlled environment,” said chemist Sunanda Rani Barman.

“The way balloon sellers use hydrogen is something like toying with bombs.”

Balloon sellers said they use different methods to create hydrogen to inflate floating balloons. Mostly they use sodium hydroxide or caustic soda and potassium hydroxide or caustic potash, which are known as ‘casting’ to them.

They use aluminium or silver with ‘casting’ and make gas.

This chemical reaction creates intense heat. The reaction becomes uncontrolled when the chemicals are mixed disproportionately.

THE SOURCE

Gas balloons shaped as fish, bird, ball, and cartoon characters like the minions or Motu-Patlu are available on every Dhaka street. They are sold in other districts. The vendors move to venues or parks or other public places during festivals or fairs.

They fill up the balloons with gas from cylinders amid the crowds, which raises the possibility of casualties in case of a blast.

Mohammad Ismail, a gas balloon manufacturer in Dhaka, fills balloons with gas at his home in Mohammadpur’s Jahuri Mohalla. Mostly poor families buy his balloons and send their children to sell them on the streets.

Ismail has a cylinder specifically made for the task. One such cylinder costs around Tk 15,000 to Tk 20,000, he said. Cylinders that are used for welding work or CNG cylinders used in vehicles are reshaped in a workshop and then a valve with a key is set on the top of the cylinder and a hole on the other side. A nut is used to block the hole.

One has to twist open the nut and put water and “medicine” into the cylinder, Ismail said. 

“You need to put water with casting and silver. That makes the gas,” he said, when asked what he meant by “medicine”.

Ismail has no idea about the chemical reaction going inside the cylinder. All he knows is that he can control the situation by pouring water or opening the valve if the cylinder becomes too hot.

To control the temperature, most of the balloon sellers keep the cylinders in a water-filled drum or a hole on the ground with water, when they work at home, said Ismail. Some people wrap a wet blanket around the cylinder when they fill balloons with gas. Even then, sometimes the temperature goes out of control.

Balloon sellers said that chemicals like caustic soda or caustic potash are easily available in the chemical markets in Chawkbazar or the Mitford Hospital area. They buy different balloons of different shapes imported from China from Chawkbazar. A thousand such Chinese balloons are available for Tk 5,000 to Tk 10,000 in the wholesale market of Chawkbazar. Later, they fill the balloons with hydrogen.

The price of one kilogram of caustic potash powder ranges between Tk 100 and Tk 150 while caustic soda is cheaper. Helium gas is far more expensive.

According to IndiaMART, an e-commerce site in India, one cubic metre of helium is sold from Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000. Helium is made as a by-product in the gas fields.

Due to the scarcity of helium gas, it costs around Tk 100 to fill a medium-sized balloon in Bangladesh. On the other hand, sellers spend almost nothing to fill a balloon with hydrogen gas. After watching a YouTube video in which Mojibor Rahman, a balloon trader in Cumilla gave highlights of the trade, bdnews24.com spoke to him.

Mojibor sells gas balloons of different shapes like a bird, fish, and cartoon characters in different sizes at a wholesale price. He sells 1,000 balloons for Tk 22,000.

When asked if the balloons were flammable, Mojibor said the balloons would burst if they were brought near fire. "Extreme heat or even a lighted cigarette near the gas balloons may start a fire. Otherwise, the balloons remain intact even for two months," he said over a phone call. 

“Though it's called a helium balloon, we only use hydrogen for gas balloons. No one in Bangladesh sells helium balloons as they are quite expensive," said Aminul Islam, another balloon trader who also sells through Facebook.

ACCIDENTS CONTINUE TO HAPPEN

Gazipur Metropolitan Police organised a civil gathering and cultural event to celebrate their fourth anniversary on Sept 16. Comedian and actor Rony and four policemen were injured there after the gas balloons exploded.

When the chief guest, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, arrived, he was brought to the inaugural stage and given some balloons to release, but they would not fly away despite repeated efforts.

Some police personnel took the balloons away and stored them next to the stage. Later, some policemen were rebuking the balloon salesman because the balloons did not work. He then tried to light the balloons and make them fly, but they exploded, a witness said. 

On Jul 9, Shohag Islam, a 15-year-old balloon seller in Borodighi Bazar in Panchagarh, died after the cylinder exploded while he was filling balloons with gas. Another child Limon, 10 was injured in the incident.

Balloon seller Yunus Ali was killed in a similar blast at Tentulia Chourasta Bazar in Panchagarh on Feb 28. At least four children were injured.  

A gas cylinder used for filling balloons blasted outside a polling centre during an UP election in Shankardi village in Madaripur on Jun 15. Balloon seller Jahidul Islam died on the spot. His two legs were severed. Three children were injured and one of them died later in a Dhaka hospital while undergoing treatment.

At least three people were injured when a gas cylinder used for balloons blasted at Rajshahi Women’s Sports Complex on May 13. The balloons were brought for the inaugural ceremony of a cricket tournament.

As many as 41 people including children were injured in a gas balloon explosion at a fair in Cumilla 's Thandakali on Jan 13.

On Jan 22, 2021, a 12-year-old boy died in a gas balloon cylinder explosion at Matarbari High School premises in Cox's Bazar's Moheshkhali. The incident left 15 people injured.

The biggest blast occurred at Rupnagar in Dhaka on Oct 30, 2019, when seven children died and 20 people. The incident brought the issue of gas balloons to the forefront but no effective measures were taken.

WHO WILL TAKE ACTION?

Officials at the Department of Explosives said it is difficult for them to manage the licensing work and monitoring with a small workforce. 

It is evident that police are unaware of the issue as they kept hydrogen gas balloons in their own programme.

The Fire Service and Civil Defence said they work as a first responder when any incident occurs. Also, they submit reports to the government and try to create awareness about such incidents. But the Fire Service does not have the authority to control the sale of gas balloons on the streets.

“Any product can leave a negative impact if not used according to its safety security rules. They sell balloons keeping the gas cylinders nearby, which is very dangerous,” said Lt Col Zillur Rahman, a director of Fire Service and Civil Defence.

“The government has separate offices to control the gas cylinders and chemicals.”

The government introduced a Gas Cylinder Policy in 1991 in a bid to prevent gas cylinder accidents. According to the policy, using cylinders tampered locally without the permission of the Department of Explosives is illegal.

When contacted, Md Nayeb Ali, who heads the Department of Explosives, asked bdnews24.com to speak to Abdul Hannan, deputy inspector of explosives about the issue.

Hannan refused to speak, saying recently a journalist “misbehaved” with him during an enquiry and he did not want to speak to the media anymore.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher