An accidental leakage of styrene gas early this morning at Korean company LG Polymers’ Visakhapatnam plant left at least 11 persons, including a child, dead. Another 1,000 people were reported sick at the time of filing of this report.
Thirteen people were reported dead but government officials at a press conference in Delhi revised the figure. People woke up in horror with breathlessness and a burning sensation in their eyes as the emission spread to the adjoining Venkatapuram village at around 3.30 am. Some fell unconscious while fleeing, according to eyewitness accounts.
King George Hospital’s G Arjuna said a high concentration of gas near the leakage point and a longer period of inhalation by people when they were asleep made them sick.
As many as 3,000 people were evacuated to safe places and at least 250 were admitted to various hospitals, according to initial reports. Those in critical condition were put on oxygen support.
Vizag collector Vinay Chand said the administration rushed ambulances and other vehicles to evacuate people soon after receiving the information at around 4 am. Besides the state police and paramedics, teams of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) were also deployed for rescue operations, particularly for house-to-house search in Venkatapuram and nearby areas.
Chief Minister Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy rushed to Vizag from his Tadepally camp office near Vijayawada this afternoon to review the situation and visited those undergoing treatment at KGH and other hospitals in the city.
Prime Minister Narenda Modi had spoken to Reddy over phone and enquired about the incident and offered the Centre's support in mitigating the crisis, the chief minister's office informed. The Union home ministry has also been in touch with the state government and is monitoring the situation.
According to M Gautam Reddy, the state’s industries minister, the styrene monomer stored in liquid form in a tank accidentally leaked into the air, affecting people living in the plant's vicinity. He maintained that the leakage had been contained by neutralising styrene liquid in the tanks. The government would set up a medical support system to track those exposed to the gas and treat them for possible long-term effects, the minister said.
The state government has also ordered an enquiry into the causes of this industrial accident. "We understand that the accident took place when the plant staffers were filling the styrene liquid into the tank. Neutralisers are kept ready to check such leakages. But why the system failed to arrest the leakage needs to be investigated," state director general of police (DGP) Gautam Sawang told reporters.
The LG Polymers manufacturing plant produces hypol and EPS polymers, polystyrene, expandable polystyrene and other styrene polymers, according to the company’s website. Established in 1969, the plant was acquired by the Indian subsidiary of South Korea's LG Chem from Hindustan Polymers Company 15 years ago.
The plant had been shut for 40 days due to the nationwide lockdown in force to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The leakage is believed to have taken place when the plant’s employees were preparing to reopen it following some recent relaxations announced by the government.
Chronic exposure to styrene in humans can affect the central nervous system (CNS), causing headache, fatigue, weakness, depression and CNS dysfunction, hearing loss, and peripheral neuropathy.