Toxic Gas Leak in India amidst Covid-19 Battle

India faced a new tragedy of toxic gas leak from the LG polymer plant in Visagapattinam, Andra Pradesh on Thursday (May 7th). Several people were found unconscious on streets and the incident killed 11 including a child, more than 800 were hospitalized. 

The LG polymer plant located in Gopalapatnam in the outskirts of Visaghapattinam has been closed for 40 days due to the lockdown to prevent the new novel coronavirus spread. The plastic company has been preparing to reopen soon. Officials say that the chemical has been left there due to the lockdown and the heat produced within, has caused the gas leak.

The incident has taken place at 03.00 am local time, and the gas leak has spread to villages in a five-kilometre radius. Villagers have reported that they felt light-headed, irritation in the eyes and burning sensation on the skin. Also, they say that the police arrived at the spot immediately but they failed to do anything because one could hardly be conscious in the presence of that toxic gas. Then the police officers have taken immediate measures to evacuate the people from the surrounding areas.

Local media reports that to neutralize the chemical leak the government airlifted around 500kg of chemicals from Gujarat and sent to Visaghapattinam to bring the situation under control by Midday.

Expert analysis has confirmed that the leaked gas was Styrene used in the production of polystyrene plastics and resins. Further, they explain that Styrene which is usually refrigerated below 20 degrees Celsius and stored in liquid form is safe, as the refrigeration unit was malfunctioning during the lockdown, the chemical has gasified leaving lives at stake. The centre for science and environmental fact sheets says that the container that was used to store the chemical was old and not properly maintained.

The PHE Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards and US Environment Protection Agency says that exposure to larger amounts of Styrene gas can result in the onset of “styrene sickness”, the signs and symptoms of which include headache, nausea, vomiting, weakness, tiredness, dizziness, confusion and clumsy or unsteady motion (known collectively as central nervous system depression).

The LG Company has said that it is investigating the cause of the incident and looking forward to taking measures to speed up the recovery of affected. However, the long term impacts of the gas exposure associated with increased risk of leukaemia and lymphoma and the long term plans of the Company to aid the affected is unspoken yet.

“I pray for everyone’s safety and well-being in Visakhapatnam,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi and has convened a meeting with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to discuss the situation.

The incident reminds of the world’s worst industrial disaster. The Bhopal gas tragedy which consumed thousands of lives in 1984, following the leak of Methyl Isocyanate in Bhopal town located in Madhya Pradesh, India. Researchers reported that the impact of the exposure has lasted for years causing more than 8000 gas-related deaths. Even though the concept of long term styrene gas exposure remains at the Research level, scientists claim that the long term impact of styrene gas exposure is less, compared to the Bhopal incident. 

Doctors advise the necessary precautions to be taken during a toxic gas leak to counter the harmful effects of exposure.

  • Evacuating the place or stopping the exposure
  • Wearing wet masks to avoid gas inhalation
  • Washing eyes with plenty of clean water for around 15 minutes to avoid irritation.
  • Removing contaminated clothes immediately.
  • Washing the contact skin areas using soap and water.

Visagapattinam gas leaks hold a warning sign for chemical manufacturers to practice caution while reopening plants. Preparedness in times of origins of Industrial Hazards and knowledge on the impact of them is yet to be promoted by mass media, leaving the question of actually what have we learnt from the history of such industrial disasters.

By Jumana Jabeer

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