Why Do Ping Pong Balls Burn?

Until 2014, ping pong balls were made of highly flammable materials. Balls could unexpectedly explode or combust when struck by a bat, making an already fun game even more exciting. Do more modern ping pong balls still burn quickly? Yes, they do, and here’s why.

Why do ping pong balls burn?

In 2014, the International Table Tennis Federation authorized ping pong balls made from plastic compounds instead of the previously used celluloid, which was highly combustible. Modern ping pong balls are made of Nitro-cellulose polymers, which are less flammable. This thermoplastic material provides a rigid, soluble polymer. During the manufacturing process, the evaporation of the solvent results in solid plastic.

A plasticizer is added to make the plastic pliable and flexible for shaping into the hemispheres that will ultimately be joined to make the two sides into a ball. Camphor is a perfect choice as a plasticizer, and it fixes into the Nitro-cellulose. That is where the Camphor odor comes from when a ping pong ball breaks. Contrary to what many people think, ping pong balls are not filled with a Camphor-smelling gas. There is nothing but clean air in the balls, and the Camphor is a part of the polymer. So, there you have it; the mixture of Camphor as a plasticizer and Nitro-cellulose plastic is a perfect combination for catching fire quickly.

Are ping pong balls poisonous or toxic?

No, they are not. However, they do emit poisonous gases and fumes when they burn. Furthermore, storage areas should remain reasonably cool because continuous exposure to high temperatures could cause the plastic material to become toxic.

Do ping pong balls pose risks for pets?

The lightness and bouncing abilities are irresistible for cats and dogs. They can provide hours of fun, and although they do not pose risks to pets, pet owners may want to buy top-quality ping pong balls that won’t break easily. When pets chew or swallow the plastic, there might be adverse health consequences.

Children, beware!

Although children can safely play with ping pong balls, parents should explain the dangers of setting fire to them. YouTube videos showing people burning buckets filled with ping pong balls and even people putting a flame on a ball while holding it. Kids who choose to try those tricks themselves may be putting their lives on the line or risk a future with severe scars from burn wounds.

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Riley Draper

Avid table tennis player, world traveler, and content creator. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn.