‘Combustible Dust’ Plant Explosion May Cost Apple 500,000 iPads

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It looks like dust—that’s right, dust—was responsible for a deadly explosion at a Chinese factory that supplies Apple iPads. The blast, which happened last Friday (pictured above) killed three workers and injured 15 others.

Not just any dust, say Chinese investigators, but something called “combustible dust.” Yep, I had to look that one up, too.

According to the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), combustible dust is “Any combustible material (and some materials normally considered noncombustible),” which “can burn rapidly when in a finely divided form.” Get a sufficient amount into the air and it can become explosive. OSHA says incidents related to such explosions “have killed scores of employees and injured hundreds over the past few decades.”

The blast’s a huge deal for several reasons. The tragic loss of human life, most of all. Worry that “lax” safety standards may be pervasive. That plant owner, Foxconn Technology Group, is a major manufacturing partner for Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, Nokia and Sony. And that portions of the plant where the explosion occurred in Chengdu, China were shuttered after the blast, prompting concerns about serious supply disruptions.

The incident could cost Apple as many as 500,000 iPad 2 tablets, reports Bloomberg, citing research firm IHS ISuppli. In fact that may be the low-end figure. If the plant stays closed for over a month, ISuppli expects the number to climb, though half-a-million’s actually worlds better than figures trotted out by analysts last week, which ran as high as 1.8 million to 2.8 million iPads lost by Apple’s quarter ending in June.

The big question’s how much of Apple’s business ties back to Chengdu, which the New York Times calls “a relatively new facility, with 80,000 employees.” Apple and Foxconn are declining comment.

The plant disaster comes in the wake of a public relations fiasco last year, when 18 workers attempted suicide—14 succeeding—at Foxconn’s China-based facilities between January and November 2010.

More on TIME.com: 

Apple Has Approved 500,000 Mobile Apps (1,123 Fart Apps)

Now the Army Wants an App Store

Do Gadgets Really Make Our Lives More Complicated?

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