On June 27, almost 500 people were injured in a horrific incident at a water park in Taiwan when a colored powder exploded. As of August 12, eleven people have died and dozens of victims remain in intensive care. Some of the injured suffered burns on 80 to 90 percent of their bodies.
This incident cast a spotlight on the potential dangers of this powder, which is used especially in North America at events like color runs. Few people realize that the powder is readily ignitable when dispersed as a dust cloud.
Corn starch, the primary ingredient in the powder distributed at the Formosa Fun Coast event, can be easily ignited. FOX News reported the possibility that a cigarette or spark served as the ignition source that triggered the explosion of colored powder as it was being sprayed into the crowd from a stage. Wang Wei-Sheng, a liaison with the New Taipei City fire department command center, reinforced this premise, stating during an interview with USA Today that the powder ignited along the ground, mainly burning people's lower bodies.
"Holi powder," named after a Hindu festival, is sold under several brand names such as Hippie Powder. A quick online search for Holi powder also shows that there are easy homemade recipes that feature readily available ingredients such as corn starch, food coloring and water.
According to NFPA's Guy Colonna, division manager of Industrial and Chemical Engineering, corn starch is a combustible solid that forms a very fine powder and can create a combustible dust cloud. Spraying the powder over the crowd as was done in Taipei enhances the dust cloud dispersion and formation. At many events, the material is distributed via compressed air cylinders which can potentially cause an ignition hazard from generation of static charge.
The unfortunate June incident in Taiwan has prompted many questions across the globe about the use of colored powder at high-traffic events. We will keep you posted on new insight concerning "Holi powder" and other flammable powders that are in play these days.