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(Right) Vapour billows out from an LG Polymers plant after styrene gas leaked killing 11 people in RR Venkatapuram village of Visakhapatnam district in Andhra Pradesh on Thursday. The accident was reminiscent of the Bhopal gas tragedy (left) in 1984 when thousands of people died following a gas leak at a pesticide plant owned by US chemical firm Union Carbide .
(Right) Vapour billows out from an LG Polymers plant after styrene gas leaked killing 11 people in RR Venkatapuram village of Visakhapatnam district in Andhra Pradesh on Thursday. The accident was reminiscent of the Bhopal gas tragedy (left) in 1984 when thousands of people died following a gas leak at a pesticide plant owned by US chemical firm Union Carbide .

Gas leak kills 11, leaves scores in critical condition in Vizag

11 people were killed when gas leaked at LG Polymers India’s plant which was being reopened after lockdown curbs were lifted in Vizag, Andhra Pradesh

HYDERABAD/NEW DELHI : In one of the deadliest industrial accidents since the Bhopal tragedy of 1984, a gas leak at the LG Polymers India’s plant in Visakhapatnam killed 11 people, including a child, left hundreds of people hospitalized and forced the evacuation of thousands of others.

The styrene gas leak occurred around 2.30am as most of the city’s residents were sleeping, just like the Bhopal leak of methyl isocyanate in the intervening night of 3 and 4 December 1984.

The leak took place when the plant was being reopened after being shut for weeks to comply with a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus. A technical glitch in the refrigeration unit attached to the two styrene tanks at the chemical plant caused the leak, PTI reported, citing district collector V. Vinay Chand.

The tragedy once again brought to the fore the issue of locating factories that handle hazardous chemicals around densely populated settings and suggests that lessons have not been learnt from the Bhopal gas disaster.

“The Vizag tragedy is yet another lesson for our smart city planners. The area near the factory, Gopalapatnam, is densely crowded. When the Hindustan Polymers factory was established six decades ago, it was deserted. It should have been zoned off and kept thinly populated," said Amir Ullah Khan, a senior research fellow at New Delhi-based Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, a policy think tank.

A crowd gathers outside the LG Polymers plant from where chemical gas leaked, in Visakhapatnam on Thursday.
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A crowd gathers outside the LG Polymers plant from where chemical gas leaked, in Visakhapatnam on Thursday. (Photo: AP)

In separate incidents, seven workers of a paper mill in Chhattisgarh were hospitalized after a gas leak and another seven were injured in a steam pipeline burst at a thermal power station of NLC India Ltd in Tamil Nadu. The series of accidents point to the fact that many of these companies may have failed to follow the required safety drills during the lockdown or may have flouted norms in their eagerness to reopen the shut factories.

The styrene gas, for which no antidote is available, spread in a 3-km radius around the LG plant in Visakhapatnam, home to around five million people, leading to widespread panic in the city. Many people were seen lying on the ground, struggling to breathe, after having inhaled the gas.

Water was being sprayed to neutralize the effect of styrene gas, a chemical used in the manufacture of plastic, paint, synthetic rubber and disposal cups, among others, as it is heavier than air.

“As many as 1,000 people living close to the factory were directly exposed to the gas and have been evacuated," National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) member Kamal Kishore said at a press briefing in New Delhi.

The styrene gas might have leaked from the storage tank of the plant located at RR Venkatapuram village, which is close to Gopalapatnam area, according to Andhra Pradesh government officials. A first information report, or FIR, has been registered against LG Polymers India Pvt. Ltd. The business, which started as Hindustan Polymers, was acquired from the UB Group by South Korea’s LG group in 1978.

Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy has announced a compensation of 1 crore each for those who have died in the tragedy. The state government has also promised to provide quality medical care to those who are ill and will bear their medical expenses.

“It will require a herculean effort to identify and treat the thousands who have been exposed to the gas. Criminal proceedings will inevitably follow, but it will be important to follow the rule of law and not allow any lynch mobs, neither on the street nor on the media," Khan said.

Styrene gas is stable when stored with recommended guidelines and a polymerization inhibitor, which prevents any chemical reaction, according to experts. However, if not stored properly, it can explode in the container. It is a storage hazard above 17 °C, and a rise in temperature beyond this point tends to speed up the chemical reaction.

The chemical gas leak was first noticed by villagers who informed the police, said S.N. Pradhan, chief of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF).

“As the entire healthcare system is well prepared because of the covid-19 pandemic, we were able to respond promptly," P.V. Ramesh, additional chief secretary in the Andhra Pradesh chief minister’s office, said in a phone interview. “What was required is oxygen, which we were able to quickly put in place, and that has helped," said Ramesh, who is also additional principal adviser to Jagan Mohan Reddy.

Acute exposure to the gas could cause irritation in the eyes, skin, nose and throat of individuals, as well as breathing difficulties. It could also seriously impact the central nervous system, causing damage to the nerves, and could impair vision, as well as lead to hearing loss and impaired balance.

“There is no specific antidote to reverse the effects of the chemical. The main strategy is to remove individuals from the affected site and help them wash their skin with water. Some of these patients may just require oxygen therapy, but some could require ventilator support. Depending on the degree of the exposure, the effects could vary," said Dr Randeep Guleria, director of the All India Institute of Medical Science.

Long-term effects on people cannot be immediately determined, said experts. “The chances of long-term impact are less. This is acute exposure and not chronic exposure. The current data suggests that there may not be a long-term effect on these patients, but we will have to analyze that," Guleria said.

“Long time exposure of styrene may cause peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage), hearing loss, and lung damage. It is also identified as a cancer causing agent," said Dr Shubhank Singh, a public health expert.

An expert team of the NDRF, which is specialized in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear disasters, will fly to Visakhapatnam to assess the situation on the ground, Pradhan said at a press briefing in New Delhi. “The silo that was leaking is down to minimal but we will be there till the leakage is totally plugged."

Srishti Choudhary, Neetu Chandra Sharma & Shaswati Das in New Delhi contributed to the story.

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