Fire related accidents are very common throughout the world. The World Fire Statistics report from 2017, shows fire statistics from 31 countries, representing 14 percent of the world’s population, showed that there were 1.9 fire deaths per 100 thousand inhabitants in 2015 [World Fire Statistics 2017]. Quite often these fires are ignited from the polymeric materials we use in our daily life. As a result developing countries like Bangladesh are at high risk as the frequency of fire-related accidents increase with time.
A report from the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defense (BFSCD) reveals that the number of fire incidents has increased threefold from 5,376 in 1996 to 18,105 in 2017 in Dhaka Metropolitan areas [The Daily Star Oct 14, 2018]. Though we are only two months into 2019, we have already experienced two big fires in Dhaka city; one at the Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College & Hospital and the tragic one at the Churrihatta intersection in Old Dhaka’s Chawkbazar. The fire accident in Chawkbazar on Feb 20 2019 left 71 people dead and many others injured, while gutting portions of several buildings. However, we are still in the dark about the cause of the fire and are unable to make a proper determination until the findings of the ongoing investigation are released. However, according to fire service officials, the presence of liquid chemicals and polymer chips stores in the buildings affected by the fire may have caused it to intensify.
The source of fire can be anything, from a simple gas stove to a discarded cigarette butt, but the shape, size and intensity of a fire depends on what fuel is available to sustain the blaze. So, the question is why, and how did the Chawkbazar fire take on such a devastating form?
According to many reports from electronic and print media we have come to know that the scene of the fire occurs is congested and has residences surrounded by busy marketplaces, restaurants, chemicals warehouses stored with the raw materials of cosmetics products, electronics, plastics, and so on. These raw materials are common synthetic polymeric materials with some typical chemical name like acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), polyamide (PA), etc. Businessmen also store thinner (often use it during painting), a kind of organic solvent like turpentine, acetone, toluene etc. All these organic compounds originate from petroleum with aliphatic or aromatic structures and are highly hazardous and flammable. They need to be stored according to chemical storage regulations because, in the presence of a fire source, they readily burn and produce a huge amount of volatiles, toxic gases, and generate a great deal of heat that intensifies any fire. These polymers, especially those with aliphatic structures, spread the fire and enlarge its intensity, whereas a natural polymer like cotton, with its aromatic structure, would char through incomplete combustion and help reduce the strength of the blaze.
A report from the Prothom Alo also reveals that the firefighter found the dead bodies of about 26 people without burn injuries on the body in a narrow lane near the scene of the Chawkbazar fire happens, suggesting they had died of asphyxiation [Prothom Alo, Feb 23, 2019]. It is very common that synthetic polymers release a great amount of smoke during full or partial combustion, which contains a huge amount of carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), hydrogen cyanide (HCN), nitrogen monoxide (NO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and organic irritants. These are some of the deadliest gases, and the high concentration of them in the smoke from a fire can cause fire-related deaths through suffocation.
In these ways the storage of chemical compounds nearer to the scene of the fire and their indirect involvement in this blaze served to fuel the tragedy’s deadly toll.
This is another wake-up call again after the Nimtoli tragedy of 2010, and it is high time to respond. To rethink how to deal with such situations and what can be done to minimise the loss of life, and property.
We can learn from the experience of other Asian countries like China. A report published by the Ministry of Public Security of China states that fire-related disasters have decreased by more than 10 percent year-on-year from 2015 to 2016 and that no fire had claimed more than 10 lives in 2016, a first since 1949 [Xinhua, 2017-01-10]. However, this didn’t happen in a day. China began fire-related research almost 30 years ago. It has established a number of state-backed key laboratories to conduct this research, and has introduced courses on fire science at the university level in the subjects of safety science, engineering and material science. All in all it has invested a billion dollars to generate innovative solutions in mitigating fire related risks.
In this way the building capacity, both at the national level and in the private sector, in terms of research and education, and raising public awareness about the fire safety issues can be key measures to minimising the damage.
But, from Bangladesh perspective, it is true that a single body is not sufficient enough to resolve this issue. We need the involvement of different government bodies and local communities. We need expert civil engineers, architectural engineers, material and chemical scientists involved in investigating the causes of fire-related accidents. And we need to plan accordingly to ensure that a tragedy like the Chawkbazar fire is never repeated again.