Disasters and Disaster Management – Sendai Framework, Floods, Cyclones, etc.

Vizag Gas Leak: What is Styrene Gas?

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Styrene gas, Various acts governing hazardous chemicals

Mains level : Loopholes in handling of Hazardous chemicals in India

A gas leak has claimed at least 11 lives and affected thousands of residents in five villages in Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.  The source of the leak was a styrene plant owned by South Korean electronics giant LG.

Practice question:

Despite a robust policy framework governing the hazardous chemicals in India, the recent gas leakage incident in Vizag highlights India’s unaddressed vulnerability to chemical disasters. Criticallly comment.

Vizag gas lead: What is styrene?

  • It is a flammable liquid that is used in the manufacturing of polystyrene plastics, fibreglass, rubber, and latex.
  • Styrene is also found in vehicle exhaust, cigarette smoke, and in natural foods like fruits and vegetables.
  • According to The Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989, styrene is classified as a toxic and hazardous chemical.

What happens when exposed to styrene?

  • A short-term exposure to the substance can result in respiratory problems, irritation in the eyes, irritation in the mucous membrane, and gastrointestinal issues.
  • And long-term exposure could drastically affect the central nervous system and lead to other related problems like peripheral neuropathy.
  • It is, likely, a carcinogenic substance that can react with oxygen in the air to mutate into styrene dioxide, a substance that is more lethal.
  • However, there is no sufficient evidence despite several epidemiology studies indicating there may be an association between styrene exposure and an increased risk of leukaemia and lymphoma.

What are the symptoms?

  • Symptoms include headache, hearing loss, fatigue, weakness, difficulty in concentrating etc.
  • Animal studies have reported effects on the nervous system, liver, kidney, and eye and nasal irritation from inhalation exposure to styrene.

How bad is the situation in Visakhapatnam?

  • It is yet unclear whether the deaths are due to direct exposure to styrene gas or one of its byproducts.
  • However, hundreds of people including many children were admitted to hospitals.
  • The cases are high as the gas leak was only detected at 3 am in the morning, meaning several crucial hours have been lost till safety precautions were taken.
  • More fatally, the gas was leaked while people were fast asleep.

What caused the leak?

  • Styrene monomer was used at the manufacturing plant to produce expandable plastics.
  • The storage requirement of styrene monomer strictly mentions that it has to be below 17 degrees Celsius.
  • There was a temporary and partial shutdown of the plant because of the nationwide lockdown.
  • The leak occurred as a result of styrene gas not being kept at the appropriate temperature.
  • This caused a pressure build-up in the storage chamber that contained styrene and caused the valve to break, resulting in the gas leakage.

Is it under control?

  • The leak has been plugged and NDRF teams moved into the five affected villages and have started opening the houses to find out if anyone was stranded inside.
  • The Covid-19 preparedness helped a lot as dozens of ambulances with oxygen cylinders and ventilators were readily available.
  • The spread of the gas depends on wind speeds. So far it is estimated that areas within a five-kilometre radius have been affected.

What are the guidelines on the storage of hazardous chemicals in plants?

After the Bhopal disaster, much legislation was enacted starting from the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to the Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991. They are-

Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 Omnibus act, which gives sweeping powers to Central government to take all measures to protect the environment
Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986 Set discharge and product standards – source standards for restricting pollution; product standards for manufactured goods and ambient air and water standards – for regulating quality of life and environmental protection
Hazardous Waste (Management Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 1989 Industry required to identify major accident hazards, take preventive measures and submit a report to the designated authorities
Manufacture, Storage And Import Of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989 Importer must furnish complete product safety information to the competent authority and must transport imported chemicals in accordance with the amended rules.
Chemical Accidents (Emergency, Planning, Preparedness and Response) Rules, 1996 Centre is required to constitute a central crisis group for management of chemical accidents; set up quick response mechanism termed as the crisis alert system. Each state is required to set up a crisis group and report on its work.
Factories Amendment Act, 1987 Provision to regulate siting of hazardous units; safety of workers and nearby residents and mandates for on-site emergency plans and disaster control measures
Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991 Imposes a no-fault liability on the owner of hazardous substance and requires the owner to compensate victims of accident irrespective of any neglect or default. For this, the owner is required to take out an insurance policy covering potential liability from any accident.

 

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