The world could face a shortage of disposable nappies after an explosion and fire at a chemical plant in Japan that supplies as much as one fifth of the global market.

The blast, which killed a fireman and injured 35 other emergency service workers, occurred after a chemical reaction caused a fire on Saturday afternoon at the plant operated by Nippon Shokubai Co in the city of Himeji, near Osaka in central Japan.

Nippon Shokubai controls the largest share of the world market for the super-absorbent polymers used in nappy production.

According to the company, demand is so high that even before the fire its production facilities were required to operate at full capacity and it had announced plans to set up factories overseas. The Himeji plant produced 320,000 tons of the super-absorbent polymer, according to the Sankei newspaper, about 20 per cent of the global share.

Pressure will now increase on the company's other production facilities to meet the shortfall.

It is estimated that in Britain alone, more than three billion nappies are thrown away every year.

The Daily Telegraph