The disastrous leak of a toxic chemical had evoked the memories of the nation of Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984 when a gas leak at a factory of US chemical firm Union Carbide killed thousands. The gas leak tragedy on Thursday has killed several people and is a reminder to the government as well as the people that safety is paramount when exiting the lockdown. The news of gas leakage was a shock to the nation amidst this pandemic where the nation is still struggling to cope with a prolonged lockdown. Residents around Gopalpatnam, close to the site where the LG Polymers plant is located, passed out as the hazardous styrene vapor swept through the area at night.
Eleven people inclusive of a child are dead with hundreds of people are severely ill. People in Gopalpatnam are complaining of breathlessness, eye irritation, nausea, and rashes on their bodies. Twenty-five cases are critical, and hundreds of them have been evacuated. Several deaths took place as few people inhaled the styrene gas, and some deaths happened when the people were trying to flee, and the chemical rendered them unconscious. These people became the first victims of the exit from the lockdown after the industrial units were allowed to resume their operations.
WHERE DID THE GAS LEAK TAKE PLACE?
The gas leak happened at the LG Polymer plant at Gopalpatnam on the outskirts of Vishakhapatnam. The workers were preparing the reopening of the plant, and that was the time when the gas started leaking, an FIR is registered against LG Polymers, and an inquiry has been ordered.
LG Polymers was established as Hindustan Polymers in 1961 for manufacturing polystyrene and its co-polymers in Vizag. Later, in 1978 it merged with McDowell & co. of the UB Group and was taken over by South Korean LG chem in 1997, and then it was renamed as LG Polymers. The factory manufactures different engineering plastic compounds. An official of LG Polymers stated that there were 1800 tonnes of styrene in the storage tank, and due to the change in temperature, it could have resulted in auto polymerization. Thus, resulting in vaporization of the gas. The official further stated that investigation is going on at the incident, and right now there is no leak as it has been contained.
WHAT IS THE CAUSE OF GAS LEAK?
As per the news report, the cause of the leakage is the unattended tanks left because of the nationwide lockdown to fight Covid-19. Officials said that the early morning air was thick and pungent-smelling gas was within the 5 kilometers radius.
Styrene, the chemical involved in the disastrous leakage is included in the schedule of the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules, 1989. The rules lay down strict norms on how it should be handled and stored, although it will take an inquiry to establish what happened and what caused the incident.
The company and the state knew that the chemical was hazardous, characterized by poor stability under a variety of conditions which could even lead to explosive situations. It is also reasonable to assume that the safety mechanism built into the storage structures of something so hazardous was either faulty or allowed to be overridden.
One possibility could be that the reopening work was left with unskilled workers or people, as some of the city officials have said. All these aspects must be probed into inquiry to fix accountability.
PEOPLE BEING ADMITTED TO THE HOSPITAL
Many people were found unconscious in the lanes, ditches, and near houses and were taken to the King George Hospital. The Andhra Pradesh government has to focus immediately on the medical needs of the grievously affected by the gas, as this incident has inevitably led to comparisons with the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy. International safety literature cites styrene as a substance that can cause cancer; there is thus no safe limit for exposure to it. Victims and their families should get solatium payments and compensation and access to the highest quality of healthcare.
PRECAUTIONS TO BE TAKEN
People within a radius of 3 kilometers of the chemical affected area have been evacuated, and as a precautionary step, the five villages nearby are being evacuated. As soon as the police were informed of the gas leak, they went to the villages to evacuate people. The GVMC officials have asked people to cover their nose with a wet cloth and are also spraying water to reduce the gas impact of gas.
Although some may see the incident of Gopalpatnam as a consequence of the lockdown, as India aims for a broader manufacturing base, it needs to strengthen its approach to public and occupational safety. Transparent oversight is not a hurdle to industrial growth. It advances sustainable development by eliminating terrible mistakes.