Vizag gas leak: What styrene is for, and how it behaves

Vizag Gas Leak- In a series of unfortunate events a hazardous gas called Styrene leaked from a chemical factory- a unit of LG Polymers India on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh on 7 May causing 11 casualties and hundreds of people have been admitted to hospital for treatment. Sandeep Anand, Visakhapatnam District Fire Officer said “Gas fumes leaking again from the tanker where there was Styrene leakage today. Around 50 fire staffers, with National Disaster Response Force’s (NDRF) support, are carrying out the operation. We’ve ordered the evacuation of villages in 2-3 km radius for safe side precautions,”

It is also being reported that the LG Polymers India admitted that as of May 10, 2019, that its petrochemical plant did not have a “valid environmental clearance substantiating the produced quantity, issued by the competent authority for continuing operations” and they submitted an affidavit regarding this to the State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA). The company did not have the clearance to expand its plant, but they did so regardless of this fact.

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Doctors have stated that there is no specific antidote and no treatment to reverse the impact and the treatment being given to the patients is mostly supportive. The Director General of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) S.N Pradhan has reported that near about 250 families were evacuated from around the plant and a “door to door” survey was on to ensure everyone is escorted out immediately.

Why This Happened?

Investigations are going on to identify the cause behind such mishap but it being said that a possible reason could have been the shutdown of the plant due to COVID-19, which has caused loopholes in ensuring proper storage of the styrene gas at appropriate temperature and due to pressure build up in the storage chamber; it led to braking of the valve resulting in this mishap of gas leakage.

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What is styrene gas?

The Strene Gas is chemically known as ethylbenzene and it is a synthetic chemical which has the texture of a colourless liquid. PVC Gas or polystyrene is found in different forms, Styrene or Polystyrene Plastic, Polystyrene Foam (often referred to as Styrofoam), and Polystyrene Film. This is used in manufacturing of plastic products using in food packaging, rubber, plastic, insulation, fiberglass, pipes and automobile parts.

Effects of Exposure to Styrene Gas

US-based Environment Protection Agency (EPA) says that the short-term exposure to Styrene can lead to respiratory problems, irritation in the eyes, irritation in the mucous membrane, and gastrointestinal issues.

Long-term exposure can wreak havoc on the central nervous system and can lead to other issues like peripheral neuropathy, cancer and depression.

Symptoms may include headache, hearing loss, fatigue, weakness, difficulty in concentrating etc

Current Scenario

500 kg of chemicals were airlifted from Gujarat to neutralize the impact of the hazardous gas that leaked and sent were to Visakhapatnam on 7 May as the company LG Polymers requested the government to arrange a chemical called 4-Teritiary Butylcatchol (PTBC).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a high-level meeting with officials to analyze the situation and steps taken to control it. The meeting was attended by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Home Minister Amit Shah and Ministers of State for Home Affairs, Nityanand Rai and G. Kishan Reddy. Dr. Randeep Guleria of AIIMS said that the possibility of a long-term impact on residents, like the one happened in 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, was less and it was an “illness that is universally not fatal.”

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About the Plant

LG Polymers bought the plant from McDowell & Company in 1997 and applied for the required procedure to get environmental clearance for the plant from Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board in May 2019 when it wanted to expand its capacity from 415 tonnes per day (TPD) to 655 TPD. Polystyrene and expandable polystyrene using imported styrene was being manufactured in this unit. According to the news reported in The Indian Express, “information sourced from the Union Environment Ministry, the company’s proposal was delisted from the environmental clearance portal in November 2019 saying that “it seems that the PP (company) is not interested to continue the project”.”

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