Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Make chemical safety policy a priority in India

The emergency response to the styrene gas leak incident in Visakhapatnam that rattled the authorities is compounded by an already raging pandemic. With the prevailing mind-set of the managements at chemical plants, it was no surprise, as we had been expecting such an incident for some time.

As a member of the expert committee and as a member of the task force constituted by the ministry of environment, forest and climate change, giving the final go ahead to projects to develop a national chemical safety plan for India, we had observed a lackadaisical attitude on the part of many people on chemical safety even while making presentations. There was such an apathy that the owners left it to the consultants who have no liability on chemical safety.

We have to bring chemical safety at par with the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals legislation of the European Union to improve protection of human health and the environment from the risks that can be posed by chemicals.

Before the committee met, a small group of experts visited many chemical units across the country. The general impression was that scant attention was paid to chemical safety. It reminds us and confirms our worst fears that India has not learnt any lesson from the Bhopal disaster.

Apart from framing some rules and guidelines, the enforcement of chemical safety has been abysmal. Few in the enforcement agencies are properly trained and informed on the toxicity and long-term impact of such exposures, which may range from mild irritation to severe organ damage, cancer and death. Still fewer are trained in environmental health, as no medical college or hospital imparts chemical-specific training to physicians.

It is alleged that styrene gas leaking from the plant triggered the emergency that saw scores of deaths and massive health impact.

Styrene, like benzene, is a liquid that vaporizes. Styrene, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), stands at the 20th position out of the 50 most used chemicals globally. Polymer plants use a number of other toxic chemicals and this should be ascertained.

This may well be the first incident of mass exposure to styrene globally, though some exposure occurs to us all through automobile exhaust, smoking, and photocopiers. As it is an organic compound, it rapidly traverses through the lungs and can be detected in blood and urine. Residence time in the body is just a few hours as the body metabolizes the parent compound and removes it through urine.

Two of the world’s top agencies, the WHO and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, US, lists the lungs and nervous system as the organs that bear the brunt of the impact, with vision and hearing also getting affected. Its potential to cause cancer is weak, but does exist.

Such massive exposure can damage the liver and could spark a variety of toxic effects. Those heavily exposed may also suffer more severely from covid-19, should they catch it.

As it is the world’s first mass exposure to this compound, the cohort of affected subjects need to be followed up and studied like was done in the aftermath of the Bhopal gas leak.

This is a wake-up call for urgent implementation of the National Plan on Chemical Safety and to initiate training of officers in Central Pollution Control Board(CPCB) and physicians in general to prevent and mitigate the damage should such incidents recur.

Dr Tushar Kant Joshi is lead expert on occupational health and industries, ministry of health and family welfare. He is a member of CPCB and former adviser to WHO on chemical safety.

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