Breaking pointLax regulations and negligence have turned LPG cylinders into accidents waiting to happen, leaving consumers playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette
Leaky cooking gas cylinders catch fire, explosion injures six, completely destroys a two-story building in the Hatkhola market area of Itahari, Sunsari (December 14, 2015)
A gas-cylinder explosion at a metal workshop in Haugaal, Lalitpur kills three, injures several others (May 20, 2016)
Fire caused by leaky gas cylinders kills one, injures six others in Samajhdari Marg, Kalimati (June 14, 2016)
These are some of the headlines that have hogged conversations in the past six months. Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) cylinders, which have become ubiquitous in urban centres and increasingly popular in rural hubs, it would appear, are accidents waiting to happen. According to a report, a whopping 30 percent of the LPG cylinders currently in circulation are susceptible to leakages, either due to their poor quality or because of the accumulation of sludge in them. At first glance, the irreverence displayed by the gas bottlers’ syndicates is infuriating and alarming. However, weak implementation of government standards and regulations, poor monitoring and negligence on part of consumers have all contributed to the overall environment of fear and uncertainty. Yet, the public outcry and media inquests have not amounted to actual change, forcing the consumers nationwide to continue playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette every time they bring a new cylinder home.
According to the National Population and Housing Census, 2011, 21.03 percent of households in the country use LPG gas cylinders. In urban areas, more than two-third, or 67.68 percent, of the households depend on the fuel source for cooking, heating and other energy needs.
Though Nepal has had a long history of LPG-usage—beginning with the establishment of Nepal Gas Udhyog in 1969—Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC) statistics indicate that its consumption only truly gained traction in recent decades. In 2002-03, the national consumption of LPG stood merely at 97,200 tonnes per annum. By 2007-08 the figure had jumped to 115,813 tonnes. The current consumption stands at 288,000 tonnes per annum with demand increasing by 10-15 percent every year. Along with the soaring consumption, the number of gas bottlers and cylinders in circulation have naturally spiked as well. Today, there are a total of 55 bottlers nationwide distributing LPG through 6.5 million cylinders.
Yet, despite the increasing popularity of LPG, the market is still in want of stringent regulations and tracking mechanisms that ensure that this potentially dangerous fuel source continues to remain safe for consumption. The NOC-formulated LPG Sellers Bylaws, 2009, is one of the legal provisions to regulate the usage and distribution of LPG cylinders. The bylaws specify that gas cylinders must use standard safety caps to avoid possible leakage through the cylinder valve. To that end, bottlers need to perform hydrostatic testing of the cylinders, initially in 10 years for a new cylinder, then in five and every three years thereafter. The bylaws also require the cylinders be 2.4-2.9 millimetres thick.
Furthermore, the laws specify procedures for handling cylinders. The codes state that the bottlers cannot pile more than two cylinders in a vertical column during transport or drop and roll them while delivering. NOC also asks the bottlers and depots to notify the corporation each time a faulty cylinder is scrapped.
According to gas dealers, however, a large number of old cylinders remain stocked with bottlers. Chandra Thapa, general secretary of the Gas Dealers’ Federation Nepal, insists that with the growing number of leakages reported of late, the government should proactively scrap defective cylinders as soon as possible. According to him, 2-3 percent of the cylinders supplied by the bottlers are unsafe, primarily due to defective valves.
Gas cylinders don’t have definite life-spans. Often, rusting, erosions and handling, determine how long each cylinder lasts—approximately 10 years. Yet NOC data indicate that bottlers have disposed of only 23,000 gas cylinders in the past four decades. NOC spokesperson, Mukunda Ghimire, insists that the laws requiring the certification of cylinders for the bottlers compels them to scrap eroded ones. Those directives, however, are yet to be realised.
The Nepal Bureau of Standards and Metrology (NBSM) is another government organ responsible for monitoring LPG cylinder usage. The regulatory body has made it mandatory that gas cylinders, regulators and pipes maintain the Nepal Standard certifications to ensure consumer safety. Besides those supplied by three domestic cylinder manufacturers—Nepal Cylinder of Amlekhgunj, Aerotech of Bara and Griha Laxmi Metals of Chitwan—bottlers who use cylinders imported from India are also required to certify their wares with the NBSM.
Furthermore, bottlers are required to perform hydrostatic testing for the cylinders in the presence of NBSM representatives. Hydrostatic testing measures the cylinder’s capacity to withstand pressure while weeding out leakages. According to Ghimire, up to 90 megapascals (MPa) of pressure is created inside a cylinder to verify if it can withstand high pressures. Generally, a gas-filled cylinder maintains a constant pressure of 16 MPa.
NBSM is also tasked with enforcing weight standards for cylinders and curbing their tampering. NBSM Director General, Bishwa Babu Pudasaini, warns that if the weight of the cylinder is merely two percent more than the accepted range, the containers pose serious risk to users. To that end, sellers are required to clean cylinders in time to rid it of accumulated sludge. As a further safety net, NBSM enforces the bung code system for cylinders to restrict their tampering. A company’s bung code—a unique coding marked on the valve of a gas cylinder—was implemented to prevent gas bottlers from switching cylinders after several incidents surfaced in 2012.
Yet, despite the manifold regulations, lax monitoring and blatant disregard on part of the suppliers have left consumers in a fix. Caught between a rock and a hard place, they are cornered into willingly purchasing dubious cylinders, turning a blind eye to their own safety. The constant shortages in supply, under various pretexts, have not helped either. If anything, they have been reminders to those habituated to the convenience of LPG that firewood or even electric stoves are not viable alternatives. Ghimire expresses hope that through the use of certified rubber pipes, distribution through certified dealers, campaigns to raise consumer awareness and the timely testing of cylinders will eventually help curb the numbers of accidents caused by LPG cylinders. But without concerted ownership of all the stakeholders involved, it appears that Nepali consumers will continue to remain unwilling participants to a very dangerous game.