A gas leak, reminiscent of the 1984 Bhopal tragedy, has claimed at least 11 lives and affected thousands of residents in five villages in Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. The source of the leak was a styrene plant owned by South Korean electronics giant LG, located at RRV Puram near Gopalapatnam, about 15 kms from the coast city.
Initial reports indicate that several people from the surrounding villages — RRV Puram, Venkatapuram, BC Colony, Padmapuram and Kamparapalem — fell unconscious on the roads. While six died due to prolonged exposure to the gas, another two died while trying to escape from the leak. Read this story in Bangla
Vizag gas lead: What is styrene?
It is a flammable liquid that is used in the manufacturing of polystyrene plastics, fiberglass, rubber, and latex. According to Tox Town, a website run by the US National Library of Medicine, styrene is also found in vehicle exhaust, cigarette smoke, and in natural foods like fruits and vegetables.
What happens when exposed to styrene?
As per the US-based Environment Protection Agency (EPA), short-term exposure to the substance can result in respiratory problems, irritation in the eyes, irritation in the mucous membrane, and gastrointestinal issues. And long-term exposure could drastically affect the central nervous system and lead to other related problems like peripheral neuropathy. It could also lead to cancer and depression in some cases. However, EPA notes that there is no sufficiet evidence despite several epidemiology studies indicating there may be an association between styrene exposure and an increased risk of leukemia and lymphoma.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms include headache, hearing loss, fatigue, weakness, difficulty in concentrating etc.
Animal studies, according to the EPA, have reported effects on the CNS, liver, kidney, and eye and nasal irritation from inhalation exposure to styrene.
How bad is the situation in Visakhapatnam?
While it unclear at the moment whether the deaths are due to direct exposure to styrene gas or one of its byproducts, Visakhapatnam Police Commissioner Rajiv Kumar Meena has maintained that the gas is “non-poisonous” and is only fatal when exposed for longer durations. However, hundreds of people including many children were admitted to hospitals. The cases are high as the gas leak was only detected at 3 am in the morning, meaning several crucial hours have been lost till safety precautions were taken, and the gas was allowed to spread while people were fast asleep. Officials said they immediately began making announcements over speakers but many were feared to have already become unconscious as police had to break open doors to shift people.
What caused the leak?
A statement from LG Polymers said that stagnation and changes in temperature inside the storage tank could have resulted in auto polymerization and could have caused vapourisation. “We are investigating the incident. Right now there is no leak as it has been contained. We will observe the facility for another four hours and give an all clear after a thorough inspection,’’ an official said.
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There was 1,800 tonnes of styrene stored at the plant at the time of the leak.
Vizag gas leak: Is it under control?
The leak has been plugged and NDRF teams moved into the five affected villages and have started opening the houses to find out if anyone was stranded inside. Officials said that the Covid-19 preparedness helped a lot as dozens of ambulances with oxygen cylinders and ventilators were readily available. The spread of the gas depends on wind speeds. So far it is estimated that areas within a five kilometre radius have been affected.
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