The gas leak from factory LG Polymer on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam Thursday, which has killed 11 people so far, poses several questions, even as the Andhra Pradesh department of factories maintains that efforts are on to fully contain the vapours emanating from the 2,000-MT tank of styrene.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a federal public health agency of the US Department of Health and Human Services, many factors determine if one would be harmed on being exposed to styrene. These include “the dose (how much), the duration (how long), and how you come in contact with it. You must also consider any other chemicals you are exposed to and your age, sex, diet, family traits, lifestyle, and state of health.”
Explained | Vizag gas leak: What is styrene gas?
An Occupational Medicine specialist and professor at Indian Institute of Public Health-Hyderabad, Dr Ramana Dhara, who is also a member of the ‘international medical commission on Bhopal’ and has studied the Bhopal Gas Tragedy since 1985, said the fact that 11 persons have died and 300-odd hospitalised suggests the gas was released in huge concentrations.
“Styrene is an organic chemical compound, if exposed to humans it may irritate the lungs, the eyes, the mouth. It goes into the brain and causes lethargy, confusion, malice in the brain, etc. It can have long-standing effects on the liver and the reproductive system. The concentrations of the gas that has escaped are very very high, as evident from the fact that so many people have died,” Dr Dhara told Indianexpress.com.
Styrene is widely used to make plastics and rubber. According to the US agency, consumer products containing styrene include packaging materials, insulation for electrical uses (i.e., wiring and appliances), insulation for homes and other buildings, fiberglass, plastic pipes, automobile parts, drinking cups and other “food-use” items, and carpet backing, etc.
Drawing parallels to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Dr Dhara said both the accidents took place when the plants were being recommissioned after certain days of shutdown.
On Thursday, the gas leak from the factory, located at RRV Puram near Gopalapatnam, about 15 km from Visakhapatnam, affected at least 2,000 residents in five villages around the factory. Panic-stricken residents of RRV Puram, Venkatapuram, BC Colony, Padmapuram, and Kamparapalem fled the area, and many fell unconscious on the roads.’
A senior environmental engineer and activist, Sagar Dhara, who has earlier worked as a consultant to the UN Environment Programme and was also a member of the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB), said it needs to be investigated if the factory had demarcated a vulnerable zone and announced it to the nearby residents.
“People living in the vulnerable zone are to be informed about the risk involved. Were the standard operating procedures followed in shutting down and recommissioning the plant? Have they followed the hazardous chemicals rules in the maintenance of the chemicals?” he asked. Further, “the PCB will blame LG polymers. But in every such accident, the oversight is by the regulatory authority too,” he added.
Sagar Dhara asked of the plant had an on-site and off-site disaster management plan. “In the event of a gas leak, people should run perpendicular to the flow of wind. Were they told this? Were they told to remove shoes, not switch on or off lights and vehicles to avoid causing sparks? Such gases can cause an explosion. Most gases are soluble in water, were people told about it?
Responding to Indianexpress.com, J Shiva Shanker Reddy, Joint Chief Inspector of Factories, Visakhapatnam, maintained that officials have been in the factory since 7 am to arrest the vapours. He said only an operator and a maintenance worker were present at the plat at the time of accident, apart from the security guards.
“The storage tank had 1900 MT styrene. The management suspect that since the material was not used for long, a difference in temperature from top to bottom of the tank could have caused vapours and due to the pressure built, it could have breached the breather valve. But they say they had taken up cooling activities every day. Probe is on. So far, no violation has been found,” said Reddy.
He said that the workers could not adequately inform residents in the neighbourhood as they were only a few of them. “We have arrested more than 50 per cent of the vapours. More reaction inhibitors are needed, they are being brought from Gujarat. Once it is poured in, the chemical will be neutralised and arrested completely,” he added.
The factory was established in the year 1966, Reddy said, when there was no habitation around it.
When contacted, T Rajendra Reddy, Joint Chief Environmental Engineer, APPCB-Visakhapatnam zone, told Indianexpress.com that the APPCB had measured an air quality level of 2-5 ppm from the villages around the LG Polymers factory around 9 am Thursday.
Stating that the air quality was not dangerous, he said: “The concentration of gases could have been much more in the initial hours after accident. The air quality is still fluctuating and we are monitoring the air.”
Since the spread of Styrene was not due to emissions but leakage from the storage tank, the PCB will wait for investigation report from the Factories department. Meanwhile, it will verify if the factory had all pollution norms fulfilled.
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