Vizag Gas Leak – Styrene Is A Poisonous Chemical Warfare Agent

In the early morning of 7th May, 2020 a poisonous gas leaked out of LG Polymers, a chemical factory in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh with atleast 10 death and over 5,000 sick and hospitalized. The company is owned by a South Korean battery maker LG Chemical Ltd. The chemical leaked during Vizag gas leak was identified as Styrene – a poisonous, inflammable gas used in plastic engineering industry as well as a chemical warfare agent. It is suspected that refrigeration issues due to lack of maintenance because of a nationwide Coronavirus related lockdown triggered a series of explosions in the tanks. The exact nature of the cause is under investigation.

Vizag Gas Leak - Styrene Is A Poisonous Chemical Warfare Agent
Vizag Gas Leak – Styrene Is A Poisonous Chemical Warfare Agent. Rescuers evacuate people following a gas leak at an LG Polymers plant in Visakhapatnam in southern India. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

The Leak

According to Swarupa Rani, the Assistant Commissioner of Police in Visakhapatnam, they received a call from the local villagers around 3:30am. The villagers reported that “there was some gas in the air”.

“We reached there immediately. One could feel the gas in the air and it was not possible for any of us to stay there for more than a few minutes. Prepared rescue workers started working from around 4am [22:30 GMT].”

Vizag Gas Leak at LG Polymers
Vizag Gas Leak at LG Polymers

The LG Polymers plant is located in the outskirts of Visakhapatnam. The city and the surrounding area is home to around five million people. The plant is located close to a village of between 3,000 to 4,000 residents.

Effects

LG Chemical said in a statement that the gas emitted in the leak can cause nausea and dizziness when inhaled. However, disturbing videos and photographs circulating on Indian social media showed people and animals dropping unconscious or dead instantaneously. There were reports of people and animals lying unconscious on the roads.

Others were having breathing problems and complained of rashes on their body and sore eyes. B K Naik, district hospitals coordinator, said that at least 1,000 people had been sent to different hospitals, and that it was feared many others may be unconscious in their homes.

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Five villages in the outskirts of Visakhapatnam were affected by the gas leak in the LG Polymers unit. One man is reported to have died when he jumped into a well while another person fell off the balcony of his house.

Tej Bharath, a senior Vishakhapatnam district official said, “When we arrived on the spot a lot of people were lying on the ground unconscious and we evacuated around 1,000 people and rushed them to the hospital. Of these, around 100 are seriously ill.”

If you breathe high levels of styrene (more than 1000 times higher than levels normally found in the environment), you may experience nervous system effects such as changes in color vision, tiredness, feeling drunk, slowed reaction time, concentration problems, or balance problems.

Cows dropped dead after inhaling Styrene leaked from LG Polymers
Cows dropped dead after inhaling Styrene leaked from LG Polymers. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

Hearing loss has been observed in animals exposed to very high concentrations of styrene. Changes in the lining of the nose and damage to the liver has also been observed in animals exposed to high concentrations of styrene, but animals may be more sensitive than humans to these effects.

Eyewitness Accounts

Eyewitnesses said that the incident took place around 2.30 a.m. when people were fast asleep in their homes. All of a sudden people in surrounding areas woke up with a sense of breathlessness, terrible itching, and burning sensation in their eyes. Panic-stricken they rushed out of their homes, only to collapse. Several cattle and livestock also succumbed to the poisonous gas pervading the air.

One of the women in KG Hospital said: “We could feel a strange smell. It was a very surreal feeling. Am I alive or dead. I could see people and animals lying on the ground. I don’t know how I reached the hospital.” Local villagers complained around 03:30 and police immediately went to the scene, but had to quickly retreat for fear of being poisoned, she said.

“One could feel the gas in the air and it was not possible for any of us to stay there for more than a few minutes,” she said.

Cause

Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation officials said that the tragedy took place when the chemical unit, closed due to the lockdown, was being restarted on Thursday morning. The gas stored in tanks began leaking and spread in a radius of 3 km. Officials have zeroed in on two gases, styrene and pentine, as the likely causes for the accident.

“[The gas] was left there because of the lockdown. It led to a chemical reaction and heat was produced inside the tanks, and the gas leaked because of that,” Swarupa Rani, the assistant commissioner of police in Visakhapatnam said.

The state Industries Minister Goutam Reddy told BBC Telugu that it looked as though proper procedures and guidelines were not followed when the plant was being re-opened.

Some factory employees are believed to have been inside when the leak occurred, but officials say they have no information about them.

Styrene

The leaked gas has been identified as Styrene – a poisonous, inflammable gas used in plastic engineering industry as well as a chemical warfare agent. It is suspected that refrigeration issues due to lack of maintenance because of a nationwide Coronavirus related lockdown triggered a series of explosions in the tanks. The exact nature of the cause is under investigation.

The LG Polymers plant makes polystyrene products, according to a company website, which are used in manufacturing electric fan blades, cups and cutlery and containers for cosmetic products such as make up. The raw material, styrene, is highly flammable and releases a poisonous gas when burnt.

Hazardous Effects of Styrene

“Depending on the intensity of inhaling the poisonous gas, a person could face complications in the lungs and inhaling oxygen. It could lead to fatality due to damage to central nervous system,” Dr. C.V. Rao, Director, GITAM Institute of Medical Sciences, told The Hindu.

Dr. D Raghunatha Rao, former Director, Homi Bhabha Cancer Hospital and Research Centre said styrene is primarily used in the production of polystyrene plastics and resins. Acute (short-term) exposure to styrene in humans results in mucous membrane and eye irritation, and gastrointestinal effects.

He said chronic (long-term) exposure to styrene in human beings leads to serious multiple complications. He said studies on its impact are inconclusive on the reproductive and developmental effects of styrene. Several studies did not report an increase in developmental effects in women who worked in the plastics industry, while an increased frequency of spontaneous abortions and decreased frequency of births were reported in another study.

“Several epidemiological studies suggest there may be an association between styrene exposiure and an increased risk of leukemia and lymphoma. However, the evidence is inconclusive due to confounding factors,” he pointed out.

The spread of styrene monomer vapours in the air depends on the wind speed and currently personnel are working to neutralise the air with chemicals such as 4-tert-Butylcatechol (TBC), a senior official of the Department of Factories said on Thursday.

Styrene Sickness

Exposure to larger amounts of Styrene 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).

In some cases exposure to styrene can also result in irregular heartbeats and even coma, according to information from the PHE Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards and US Environment Protection Agency

Cancer

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), National Toxicology Program (NTP) lists styrene as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” in the Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition, released on June 10, 2011. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that styrene is a possible human carcinogen.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists styrene as a Hazardous Air Pollutant (HAP) under the National Emissions Standard Hazardous Air Pollutants section of its Clean Air Act.

Chemical Warfare Agent

According to Dr. Avinash Pathengay, senior consultant ophthalmologist, LV Prasad Eye Hospital, Styrene gas could affect central nervous system, peripheral neuropathy and severe weakness and fatigue. He said the highly inflammable gas could be used in chemical warfare.

The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), classifies Styrene’s acute toxicity under an Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) document.

LG Polymers

LG Polymers, is among India’s leading manufacturer of polystyrene and expandable polystyrene. The plant located at Visakhapatnam, belongs to the Mumbai-based LG Polymers India, which is part of the South Korean group LG Chemical. Originally set up in 1961, as Hindustan Polymers for manufacturing polystyrene and its co-polymers, the company was merged with McDowell & Co Ltd of UB Group in 1978. It ultimately became part of the South Korean group LG Chemical, in 1997.

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