Untested gas cylinders, bad handling risk lives

Emran Hossain | Published: 00:30, Jan 18,2020


Gas cylinders are used and carried without maintaining adequate safety measures, clockwise from top left, at a puffed rice mill in Keraniganj, on a truck in Tongi, at a house in Jigatala and at a restaurant in Kanthalbagan in Dhaka. The photo was taken on Friday. — New Age photo

The government has allowed commercial use of gas cylinders, declared explosives by the law, for two decades now without having developed mechanisms to check the qualities of the cylinders or to prevent their unsafe marketing.

Not one of some 2.5 crore liquefied petroleum gas cylinders now in household use or of about half a million compressed natural gas cylinders in use at vehicles has ever been tested by the government.

The government has always relied on the gas cylinder importers and their local manufacturers for their products’ quality certification and never sought to verify them.

Not even after scores of unsuspecting people have died over the years in fires at homes and in explosions at vehicles related to the poor quality of gas cylinders the government has moved into action.

‘Checking of cylinders does not need expensive facilities,’ a chemical engineering professor, Ijaz Hossain, at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology told New Age.

Cylinder-quality checking involves mainly a very simple process of finding out how much pressure a cylinder can withstand before it explodes, he said.

Gas cylinders sold in Bangladesh are mostly made of steel and there are composite cylinders as well.

Gas-cylinder quality is particularly important for the supply of compressed natural gas for it needs to withstand an average pressure of 3,000 pounds per square inch, said Ijaz.

The pressure a CNG cylinder handles is enough to take down a multi-storied building whereas an LPG cylinder carries pressure as low as 240 pounds per square inch.

LPG cylinders carry low explosion risks but gas leakage could turn them into a potential source of danger, said Ijaz.

As LPG gas is heavier than air so its leakage is particularly risky for it stays concentrated close to the ground and spreads fast if specially-designed ventilation is not there to clear it.

The BUET professor said that high-quality accessories should be used in LPG cylinders to minimise gas-leakage chances.

Among many LPG-cylinder accessories, safety valve, gas regulator and gas supplying rubber pipe are most important for they take most of the stress during the use.

Users frequently move  LPG cylinders and disconnect them from cooking stoves.

Eight of the ten LPG cylinder-related accidents investigated by the Department of Explosives in 2018–19 were caused by low-quality accessories.

Gas leakage, caused by faulty washer and gas regulator, was responsible for five of the accidents, revealed the department’s annual report.

The gas regulator caught fire in another accident as soon as the user had turned on the cooking stove. The rubber pipe caught fire in another accident.

At least 12 people were killed in the accidents that occurred at households in Dhaka and five other districts.

Some accidents occurred with huge explosions, bending iron gates, tearing down concrete walls and cracking roofs of buildings.

The Department of Explosives said that the severity of explosions varied depending on the volume of gas leaked and often the volume was huge for the leakage took place overnight.

Cylinder accessories used in Bangladesh are imported and the department does not have the means to check their qualities.

Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution certification marks wing director Ishaque Ali said that they, too, could neither check the qualities of cylinders nor of their accessories.

The explosives department rarely investigated cylinder accidents and did only when they sparked widespread public outrage. But the probes never resulted in prosecution.   

‘Gas cylinders are absolutely safe for use. Accidents occur because of unaware users,’ said Chief Inspector of Explosives Monjurul Hafiz.

He said that they ensured the safety by collecting necessary documents from the importers and manufacturers.

But less than 5 per cent of the 18 LPG cylinder-related accidents investigated by the explosives department since 2014-15 had anything to do with the users.

In 2017, the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence responded to 872 gas cylinder-related fire and explosion accidents that killed 82 people and injured 1,309 others.

In 2018, there were 953 fire incidents caused by gas cylinders killing 20 people and leaving 321 others injured, according to the fire service. 

Echoing government officers, cylinder gas businesses blamed users’ unawareness for accidents.

‘The overall situation would have been different had the government been a little pro-active,’ Omera LPG CEO Shamsul Alam told New Age.

Bangladesh CNG Filling Station and Conversion Workshop Owners Association general secretary Farhan Noor said that not general people alone but they themselves were also in danger because of the lax monitoring of gas cylinders.

All the 14 major explosions that have occurred at CNG stations across Bangladesh since 2000 were caused by faulty, expired cylinders, he said.

CNG cylinders are safe for use for 10 to 15 years after being manufactured if handled with care. Regular retests become mandatory afterwards, he added.

Cylinders failing retests will have to be shredded into pieces so that those cannot be welded back, the LPG rules say.

LPG and CNG cylinders were popularised in Bangladesh around 2000 although they had been introduced a few years earlier.

The explosives department does not know if the companies were destroying their unusable cylinders or putting them back on the market.

In October, six children were killed in Dhaka’s Mirpur in an explosion of a used LPG cylinder that had been turned into a hydrogen cylinder for inflating flying balloons.

Gas cylinders are often transported in layers in pickups or even in rickshaw vans in violation of the law that requires specially-designed vehicles and trained manpower for carrying gas cylinders.

According to Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation officials, the biggest threat comes from bulk transportation of LPG in confined lorries and tankers.

Gas cylinder storage facilities need to be specially designed as well, with its walls and roofs fire insulated, well ventilated and fitted with fire-proof electrical wirings.

But the situation in the field is far from being ideal.

Dented and badly scratched cylinders bear testimony to the fact that even the easy-to-implement rules are not abided by in the country.

In 2017, 193 LPG cylinders piled up in three trucks burst in a series of explosions at Shahjahanpur, Bogura.

A person involved in a government probe into the incident said that the explosions were set off when workers tried to offload the trucks by throwing cylinders down from it.

One of the cylinders had a leak and a spark was caused by its friction with another, instantly setting off the chain of explosions, he said.  

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