Written on 21 September 2010

On 12th September 2010, The Times published an opinion piece by Joseph Muscat, in which he discusses the manufacture of fireworks in Malta in relation to the recent spate of accidents.

He says he was inspired to write the article by his father, who was involved in the pyrotechnics business for 36 years, and who was injured in a dramatic incident involving a petard.

 I was inspired to write mine by the cold light of reason.

 Muscat makes a number of assertions which fly in the face of five centuries of progress in the science of pyrotechnics. Among them is the following: “Reactions, especially latent ones given our particular and changing climate, of some materials and formulas are largely unknown. The local reclusiveness barely helps.”

 I will gloss over the mystifying term “latent chemical reactions”, and assume that he uses “latent” in the layman’s sense of “hidden”, that is, not producing any obvious change in physical characteristics. In any case, he is wrong. These reactions, which include the spontaneous decomposition of chemicals, are known. Whole treatises have been written on the subject. I would refer him to Safety of Reactive Chemicals and Pyrotechnics (Yoshida et al., 1995) for a comprehensive overview.

 Whether Maltese pyrotechnic technicians know these reactions is another matter altogether, and indeed it sums up the whole problem. Given that fireworks factories run a commercial operation which goes beyond a mere hobby, it is not too much to ask that our “amateur” fireworks enthusiasts should be able understand basic concepts in chemistry. As for “local reclusiveness”, does he imply that firework factories refuse to share information with the investigation board? I am also puzzled by his reference to our “changing climate”, which is consistently Mediterranean (hot and humid throughout much of the year).

 Muscat’s statement about the “thin line” between “innovation and peril” is dangerous. As is his reference to “unknown” reactions. He reinforces the idea that accidents are an act of god, entirely beyond human control, and that pyrotechnics is some arcane art which consists of nothing more than mixing different-coloured powders and trusting to the heavens.

 Muscat states that the raw materials are the “first link” in the manufacturing chain, and should therefore be tested by the authorities. This is the wrong approach. The question of the purity of the materials is neither here nor there. Professional firework technicians will always test their supply chemicals before using them. The fact that such tests are not carried out in Maltese firework factories says much about the level of professionalism of the personnel.

 The manufacture of fireworks in Malta is no longer a cottage industry. What tradition may have existed has completely evaporated to give way to an activity on a commercial scale. As with any firm selling its products on the market, firework factories are expected to employ the highest standards, and their technicians should be professionals.

 Muscat goes on to propose a series of measures, including setting up surveillance cameras in each factory. What he proposes is essentially the status quo, plus a record of the activities at the various firework factories up to the moment when the explosion occurs, when the cameras would most likely be obliterated. He says these cameras would “discourage unlicensed people entering the premises as well as illegal practices”. Is this a tacit admission that the factories cannot be trusted to follow regulations? If this is so, why not close down the factories altogether?

 Finally, the idea that the fireworks industry, in that hackneyed phrase, “will go underground” is absurd. To start with, the whole point of fireworks is that they must be let off somewhere. The manufacturing phase can be more or less covert, but the cover would be blown as soon as the first petard goes off. More shockingly, it suggests that a criminal streak runs through our firework enthusiasts, who, Muscat says, would be ready to break the law if further regulations were introduced.

 “It is time for concrete action”, says Muscat, and I agree. Politicians should be drivers of change, and they should should base their policies on good science, especially on technical issues like the manufacture of fireworks. The essential step in any action plan is to dispel the notion that accidents at firework factories are beyond human control, and that one can safely make fireworks on an industrial scale with only a cursory knowledge of chemistry. If this were so, why have Professor Alfred Vella and other scientists on the investigation board?

 The safe manufacture of pyrotechnic articles requires advanced scientific knowledge and skills. Unless our scientists speak up, our politicians will more likely than not follow the path of least resistance, that of public opinion. On the issue of fireworks, this consists of a dangerous mixture of vested interests, offhand disregard of public safety, superstition and scientific nonsense, which bodes badly for a country that aspires to reach the highest European standards .